Alzheimer’s in a dish: Parkville biotech startup creates game-changing “mini brains”

14 December 2023

Imagine a small laboratory tray that holds nearly 100 human “mini brains” – each one a millimetre in diameter and taking us closer to finding cures for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but this ground-breaking biotechnology is happening right here in Melbourne amid Parkville’s renowned biomedical precinct. 

Tessara Therapeutics is the startup behind this innovation, and the City of Melbourne is supporting its journey to global impact through our Invest Melbourne TradeStart program, in partnership with Austrade. 

A tray holding 96 "mini brains" created in the Tessara Therapeutics lab
A tray holding 96 “mini brains” created in the Tessara Therapeutics lab

Preserving brain health for community wellbeing 

For Christos Papadimitriou, Tessara’s CEO and Managing Director, the futuristic work he does with his team is both worlds apart from his roots in a small Greek village, and very close to home. 

“I grew up in a village on the east coast of Greece called Tragana in a low-income family. Due to family circumstances, I saw the impact of degenerative disease,” Christos said.

“I happened to be good at science and from a young age I wanted to try to do something for people with challenging diseases, and everyone around them going through difficult times. That’s our mission at Tessara – to create healthier communities.” 

Alongside the interconnected impacts of improving wellbeing and easing economic burdens, Christos is passionate about preserving the wisdom and experiences of community elders. 

“Brain health is the most valuable asset we have. The brain holds our memories, our personalities, the legacies of our family – of who we are and what we pass on to the next generation,” Christos said. 

“Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s can erase these experiences and wisdom. It’s very sad and disheartening to see this in a loved one. We’d like to change this with our technology.” 

Man at podium making a speech.
Christos presenting at a recent AusBioInvest event

The problem with traditional drug-development models 

Christos said traditional in-vitro and animal-testing models often fail to accurately represent human brain physiology, leading to very high failure rates in drug development for neurodegenerative diseases.  

“There is a 99.6 per cent failure rate for Alzheimer’s drugs that aim to alleviate symptoms of the disease and a 100 per cent failure rate for disease-modifying drugs,” Christos said. 

“There is no therapy available, despite the fact that Alzheimer’s kills more people than breast and prostate cancer combined. By enabling technology like ours, I hope we can find cures we never thought were possible.” 

View of cells through a microscope
Each 3D brain model created using Tessara Therapeutics’ ground-breaking technology is identical, and just one millimetre in diameter

Changing the game for neurological research 

Tessara Therapeutics uses human neural stem cells and biomaterials to make brain micro-tissue – both healthy brain tissue and tissue with loss of neural networks consistent with the onset of neurodegenerative disease. 

The team’s RealBrain® technology delivers the first 3D model that is highly reproducible at an industrial scale. The process is reliable and fast – the synthetic brain tissue takes just three weeks to create. 

It’s a breakthrough that expedites the collection of human-relevant data and enables faster identification of effective drug candidates, potentially impacting multi-billion dollar markets. 

“Our goal is to revolutionise the discovery process of drug candidates, significantly increasing the success rate of clinical trials,” Christos said.

“This will lead to the development of new therapies for the hundreds of millions suffering from neurodegenerative disease, fostering healthier communities worldwide.” 

Working in the heart of Parkville’s biomedicine precinct 

Christos moved to Melbourne in 2017 and felt welcome and supported amid the “multicultural mosaic” of the city as he managed the long hours and sleepless nights of an entrepreneur. 

“Even though I came from a different country and culture, people wanted me to succeed. Everybody was trying to introduce me to another person who might be in a position to assist us,” Christos said. 

“I’m very grateful for all the people who helped me reach this point and raise the capital, as well as the support from my co-founders, the exceptional Tessara team, and of course my wife and my little daughter.” 

Five people posing for the camera
Tessara Therapeutics team members at their new office and lab space at Jumar Bioincubator

When we spoke to Christos, it was Tessara’s first day operating from the new Jumar Bioincubator, located inside CSL’s new Global Headquarters and Centre for Research and Development at the top of Elizabeth Street.

A collaboration between the University of Melbourne, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and CSL, the Jumar Bioincubator is backed by Breakthrough Victoria and managed by Cicada Innovations.

With extensive labs, high-tech equipment and offices for startups, the place provides the infrastructure, education and support startups need to survive, thrive and develop ground-breaking biomedical products.

“Jumar Bioincubator recognises the potential of innovative companies like ours and provides a space where they can grow and evolve to be successful in their mission,” Christos said.

A paradigm shift toward human-relevant, targeted therapies 

Tessara recently showcased its work at the AusBiotech conference, Australia’s largest life sciences conference, and AusBioInvest. The events shone a light on some key industry changes that Christos expects will accelerate in the next 5 to 10 years. 

“We are experiencing a paradigm shift in the industry. The science has progressed – we can now replicate physiological systems in a lab environment, enabling human-relevant drug testing,” Christos said. 

“We are also entering an era where therapeutics are very targeted – even personalised for each patient. For example, CAR-T therapy for cancer and other cell and antibody therapies that are very patient-specific.” 

“There are several cases where animal-testing and older technologies (such as 2D cell monolayers) provide less accurate results for the testing of novel therapeutics.

“Combining AI and next-generation cell-based organotypic cultures, like our mini brains, creates more human-relevant data.”

In addition to delivering more physiologically-relevant data to support neuroscience research, Tessara is also helping to forge the future of ethical research by reducing animal testing.

“The technology is designed around the use of human cells, so it significantly reduces the use of animals in research, which is now being mandated by many regulatory agencies around the world, such as the FDA,” Christos said.

“Reducing the number of animals involved in the process is important and I think it should be a mission of every company.” 

Investing to solve the “missing middle” 

To foster a globally competitive biotech ecosystem in Melbourne, Christos believes it is important to nurture local expertise and build investor confidence.

He advocates for staying abreast of global megatrends that prompt paradigm shifts in the space, while also welcoming diverse perspectives and skills from around the world, to complement and enhance the rich talent already present in Australia.

“We don’t have a problem with starting companies, the challenge is scaling them to have a global presence. The industry is calling this issue the ‘missing middle’,” Christos said. 

“It is very positive to see a realistic acknowledgment of these issues within the community. There’s a genuine eagerness to address these problems, and I can see various initiatives in the Victorian and Australian industry sector making strides in the right direction.

“I think that Victoria’s biotech ecosystem has made significant progress and investments in the last few years, bringing the local biotech industry into a very promising position.

“I am confident that within the next 5 to 10 years, we will witness transformative breakthroughs in our field – made in Victoria.”

Get support to start and grow your business 

Experts from the City of Melbourne can help you unlock your business potential and join the many innovative and successful companies investing locally. 

Our Business Concierge service is working to make it even easier for traders to operate in the city – with fast-tracked permit approvals, business and marketing support, and industry contacts. 

Our TradeStart advisers help small and medium-sized health and technology businesses identify and secure opportunities in global markets.  

The TradeStart network is an initiative of Austrade, which – along with Global Victoria – has supported Tessara Therapeutics with trips to China and Singapore to help connect the team with the world. 

To learn more and book an appointment, visit Invest Melbourne

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14 December 2023
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