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Cloud, Remote Tools at UCSC Enhance Study of Organoids

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz have been using cloud tools and remote-controlled microscopes to give more students access to cortical organoids used in biotechnology research and education.

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Because of their usefulness in studying infectious diseases and the production of new medications, replicas of brain tissue made from stem cells have started to play an important role in biotechnology research and education in recent years. But since these organ models, known as organoids, are difficult to produce, a consortium of researchers is using remote education tools and cloud technologies to give more students access to organoids grown at the university so that they can have more experience working with them.

According to a recent paper published in the research journal eNeuro, the use of remote cloud technologies for lessons related to cortical organoids grew out of research led by Mohammed Mostajo-Radji, a research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz Genomics Institute who noted that many students in biotech-related fields have little to no hands-on experience working with cortical organoids before finishing their degrees.

“Right now, it’s difficult to use organoids in the classroom, so there’s a disconnect between the skills that are required in the job market versus what the universities can provide,” Mostajo-Radji said in a news release about his team’s work. “It’s a very long and very expensive [process] to make organoids, so it’s not really compatible with classroom learning.”

Alisal High School students standing around a table at the Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab at UCSC.
Alisal High School students visit the Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab at UCSC.
Photo courtesy Carolyn Lagattuta, UCSC website
Mostajo-Radji told Government Technology that the use of remote cloud tools and remote-controlled microscopes to facilitate the study of cortical organoids has been a focus for researchers in recent years at the Braingeneers consortium, an initiative at UCSC that he said “aims to uncover the specializations of the human brain.” He said during the pandemic, the consortium began experimenting with remote technology tools to enable project-based biology education with cortical organoids in undergraduate courses and at schools such as nearby Alisal High School.

In addition, Mostajo-Radji said he and his research team at UCSC’s Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab introduced two undergraduate classrooms to their method of designing organoid experiments and lessons around tools like remote microscopes. He said an introductory-level biology class at the University of San Francisco used their tissue-culture method to allow students to conduct live experiments on the effects of drugs on organoids. And in an upper-level mathematics course at UCSC, students used multielectrode arrays to learn how brain circuits change over time.

“For the last five or six years at this point, we have been working together as a team to develop tools to monitor and manipulate brain organoids. During the pandemic, we started deploying a lot of the technology that we have developed in cloud laboratories,” he said. “With the hardware being cheap and the software being cheap and scalable, then you can afford to [have more organoid lessons] in the education setting, which in theory should be at a lower cost.”

According to the paper in eNeuro, researchers found that remote organoid lessons helped students develop interest in stem cell research and neuroscience.

“It was amazing watching the students light up as they performed science experiments for the first time,” Matthew Elliott, a co-first author and teaching assistant said. “Many of them came from strictly computational backgrounds like math and computer science and never dreamed that they’d be creating their own complex biological experiments.”

Mostajo-Radji said his team of researchers hopes to expand their work to bring remote organoid education to more students in the years ahead. By transmitting a microscope feed through YouTube, he said, these organoid lessons could become even more scalable moving forward.

“The reason why we can use YouTube is [that it’s] the exact same cost to run a course for 10 students, 100 students or a million students,” he said.

Mostajo-Radji said the main aim of their work is to bring organoid research and education to underserved regions throughout the world. He said he hopes to see the use of remote tech tools for biology education gain traction at other schools and institutions where students have little to no experience working with organoids.

“The ability to use cloud technology simultaneously from anywhere in the world actually is opening up the ability to do true comparative education studies, where you, for example, can look at how different curriculum interventions are affecting different populations of people around the world differently or similarly, and this is pretty interesting to inform education policy,” he said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.