The millimetre-wide models will be used to study myelin, an insulating substance that helps nerve cells communicate with each other.
Scientists at Edinburgh University’s Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic and the Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research developed their human myelin model using skin samples donated by volunteers.
They say the models are the most natural representation of human myelination developed in a laboratory, and they are a promising platform for the study of neurological diseases and for testing drugs for conditions linked to myelin loss, including MS.
Damaged myelin underlies a number of neurological conditions including MS – an incurable disease affecting more than 100,000 people in the UK – and leads to a wide range of symptoms, including mobility issues, fatigue and vision problems.
These new models will allow scientists to compare the differences between the cells of healthy individuals and those with different neurological diseases and to test drugs of interest in human cells before using them in a full clinical trial with patients.
The researchers hope their model will overcome the challenges of studying the human brain and nervous system at the cellular level, which is extremely difficult due to problems accessing brain and spinal cord tissue without risk and huge inconvenience to patients.
The approach complements animal models, which can be limited in how they reflect human disease and the way that drugs interact with human cells.
The research was carried out in collaboration with the UK Dementia Research Institute and the MS Society Centre for MS Research at the University of Edinburgh.
Lead researcher, Dr Owen Gwydion James, said: “Demyelinating disorders have a profound effect on the quality of life for patients.
“Now we have the capability of studying human myelination experimentally, a major goal is to identify drugs that can promote myelination. We believe that this new approach could be a huge boost to the toolbox that allows us to do this effectively.”