Modeling Mechanisms for Crossing the Blood-Brain Barrier

A model developed by scientists at the University of Portsmouth may facilitate the development of drugs to treat brain diseases.

There are many diseases that involve improper functioning or damage to brain cells. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get drugs other than small molecule-based therapies across the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Currently, treatment is often achieved by pumping medicines directly into the brain using a catheter, thereby circumventing the BBB. There may be hope for a better understanding of the BBB and ways to get more drugs through it if a new model developed by researchers at the University of Portsmouth proves successful.

Led by Dr. Zaynah Maherally, the scientists began developing a 3D all-human reproducible and reliable model of the blood-brain barrier using human cells. Animal models built with non-human animal cells have been traditionally used to investigate drugs for the treatment of brain cancer and other diseases because human tissue is difficult to obtain for research, but these models have been shown to be unreliable with respect to their ability to predict the performance of the human brain.

The new model reliably mimics the human BBB and should allow for the development of more efficient and reliable tests for new drug candidates.

“The blood-brain barrier is strikingly complex and notoriously difficult for scientists to breach. Its role, to protect the brain, makes it difficult for most drugs to make their way into the brain to treat brain tumors,” said Dr. Maherally. She added that the BBB “is a dynamic structural, physiological and biochemical fortification that, in essence, protects the brain by providing multiple layers of armor, stopping molecules from entering the brain."

According to Dr. Maherally, “In a person with a brain disease like a brain tumor or other neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia or head injuries, the strikingly complex defense works against medics and scientists trying to deliver what could be life-saving or life-prolonging treatments."

Dr. Maherally added that ““It has taken several years to get to this stage and we believe this model will significantly reduce the number of animals used in such studies and reduce the time it takes to get a promising therapeutic into clinical trials.”

Noted Professor Geoff Pilkington, Head of the Brain Tumor Research Center in Portsmouth University’s School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences: “This is the first real, 3D, all-human blood brain barrier model and it is hugely significant in our field.” In particular, he added that the new model will allow broader research that will lead to a better understanding of how cancers metastasize from the breast and lung to the brain, the potential of nanoparticle drug delivery and mechanisms for creating temporary openings that can allow drugs to pass through the barrier into the brain.


Nigel Walker

Mr. Walker is the founder and managing director of That’s Nice LLC, a research-driven marketing agency with 20 years dedicated to life sciences. Nigel harnesses the strategic capabilities of Nice Insight, the research arm of That’s Nice, to help companies communicate science-based visions to grow their businesses. Mr. Walker earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design with honors from London College.