Sandra Acosta «Minibrains represent all the possible brains an individual could have»

Dr Sandra Acosta has developed, together with Dr Lao from CNAG, an artificial intelligence platform that allows them to analyse many aspects of the organoids they develop in their lab. Through these organoids, researchers can safely test the effectiveness and toxicity of different treatments and establish which treatments may work best for each patient. Dr Acosta will present this technology at the prestigious Puzzle X fair on Wednesday, 17 November 2021.

What kind of research do you conduct?

I am a developmental neurobiologist. Throughout my postdoc I worked on modelling human brain development and neurodevelopmental pathologies using stem-cell-derived technology. This is the basis of the research we do in the group I lead at the University of Barcelona.

Our group works on different research lines. One of them is basic research, with which we try to understand the genomic mechanisms that regulate the formation of the human brain. Using comparative genomics, we focus on the DNA, specifically on the regulatory regions that control gene expression. We also work on translational research by using organoid models to study how the human brain is formed and focusing on neurodevelopmental pathologies.

In parallel, over the last three years I have teamed up with a bioinformatician, Dr Oscar Lao, and together we have designed a platform with a methodology based on the analysis of organoids through artificial intelligence. This allows us to establish which treatments work best for different patients.

What are organoids?

We mainly work with minibrain models. Basically, these are three-dimensional cellular structures formed according to the developmental patterns of the human brain. This allows us to isolate each part of the process and determine the impact of genetic mutations. Organoids represent all the possible brains an individual could have, but not at the same moment or time. Some parts are still forming and maturing, and this heterochronicity makes it difficult to use them in classical drug testing.

In the case of the brain, in two months we can have all the progenitors, which is very good for studying, for example, early onset neurodevelopmental diseases. In the case of Alzheimer’s we would need five or six months to get something that could be scientifically relevant. In contrast, lung organoids are much faster. In six weeks you can have sufficiently mature organoids that generate all the gas transfer.

How can this research benefit society?

We work in two contexts. On the one hand, we can use the platform massively with generic human cells to test the toxicity of a drug. While the AI design of our platform was underway, the national lockdown came along, and since the platform was already fairly well developed, we put it to work for Covid as well. In fact, we have two projects in the lab right now to test antivirals for treating Covid, both for the neurological and pulmonary side of the disease. We test the functionality of a drug in an organoid that we have previously infected to see if we reduce the impact of the virus infection and the viral load. In this sense, we have recently received a grant from La Marató, in collaboration with the IRSI Caixa and the Pasqual Maragall Foundation, to investigate Covid-induced neurodegeneration.

On the other hand, we have personalised medicine, for which we have received funding from Caixa Impulse. Our technology allows us to know how someone will tolerate different drugs on the basis of only a few genetic traits. In this way we specifically predict the toxicity and efficacy of a drug for a given patient, regardless of their pathology.

You have been invited to speak at Puzzle X. How did you receive the invitation?

This is an international fair, along the lines of the Mobile World Congress, but in this case on future materials and new technologies. Participating as a speaker involves the internationalisation and launch of our project and our platform. It is a great opportunity for us, and we are very happy to have been given such an opportunity. We already had the chance to present the platform at the MWC during the Four Years from Now conference, and that served to get us invited to this fair.

What is the significance of knowledge transfer?

Knowledge transfer is one of the reasons why I do what I do. When I was 10 years old I decided I wanted to develop vaccines. It was the early 1990s, the AIDS crisis, and at 10 it was very upsetting to hear that people were dying of a disease for which there was no treatment.

Research on biomedical sciences is necessary to advance society. Obviously, we don’t just implement technologies, we implement knowledge —one goes hand in hand with the other— and universities and research centres are the engine that generates this knowledge. We have the best breeding ground to be able to foster transfer, and within this field we need to work so that many of us have the means to be able to transfer their ideas to society. Some will be good ideas, and others may not be useful at first. Knowledge is not always immediately transferable. But, in short, knowledge transfer is very important, and we who work in research centres and universities are the driving force, the small spark plug in the engine that is knowledge transfer.


More about Sandra Acosta

The best invention in History

Street lighting and light bulbs are some of the most crucial inventions, followed by the democratisation of programming. We may not be so aware of it yet, but I think it will also be very important.

What would you like to see in the future?

I would like to see research aimed not at self-destruction, but at self-healing. Now we have seen that when we get to work —to fight Covid, for example—we are extremely effective. So I don’t understand why most countries spend the largest share of their budget on military research. I find it quite heartbreaking.

The FBG is…

An extremely useful entity for research staff. Since I joined the University of Barcelona, the communication with the FBG has been very fluid, and thanks to them I have been able to bring my laboratory here.

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