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Researchers Growing Miniature Human Brains In Search For Pediatric Brain Tumor Treatment

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Pediatric brain tumors are being studied like never before -- with a petri dish containing an actual miniature human brain.

As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reports, one man took the loss of a child and turned it into a mission to help cure thousands of children living with brain tumors.

Dr. Mazen Kamen launched the Kamen Brain Tumor Foundation after losing his son three years ago. Now, he's using the foundation's funds to help researchers test and tailor treatments to individual patients.

It sounds like something only a mad scientist would think of -- growing mini brains in a petri dish -- but it's actually cutting-edge research at one Weill Cornell Medicine lab that hopes to ultimately cure pediatric brain tumors, the kind of cancer that took the life of Kamen's son, Lance.

"It's the most common, solid pediatric brain tumor and it's the leading cause of cancer death among children and adolescents," Kamen said.

Despite decades of research, there's been little progress in treating the disease.

"When I started out in this field 32 years ago, the average survival for a patient with a glioblastoma was 12 months. It's now 15 months," said Dr. Howard Fine, director of the Brain Tumor Center at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Kamen and Fine joined forces and decided to take an unusual path. They used small pieces of normal brain taken during surgery to remove the tumor and actually grew miniature brains, or organoids, in a petri dish.

Doctors then inserted a piece of the same patient's tumor into the little brain organoid so it would grow and invade the normal brain tissue as it would in the human body.

The treatment part comes next.

In a custom robotics lab, hundreds of thousands of drugs and treatments are tested on each brain organoid automatically, essentially tailoring a potential treatment to each individual patient's brain-tumor combo and tremendously speeding up the process of finding out what works and what doesn't.

"We definitely hope to prolong survival and improve quality of life. I think that's essential. To ask for a cure right away, I think it's a little bit unrealistic. It will take time," Kamen said.

The "brain-in-a-dish" is actually part of a trend in treating cancer and other diseases. Whether it's brain, liver or some other vital organ, growing a patient's own tissue in a dish allows researchers to figure out exactly what treatments may or may not work. Every patient's tissue is different.

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