Cambridge makes ‘mini-lungs’ to investigate effects of COVID-19

Cambridge scientists collaborated with teams from South Korea to aid the global research effort on coronavirus

Scientists from Cambridge teamed up with scientists from South Korea to create ‘organoids’ (mini-organs) to experiment on as part of the ongoing worldwide fight against coronavirus.

Using lung cells donated to banks at several hospitals (including the Cambridge University NHS Foundations Trust) the team has reprogrammed cells back to their early ‘stem cell’ stage. This has allowed them to grow 3D structures that mimic life-size, self-organising human lungs.

The ‘mini-lungs’ were then infected with a strain of COVID-19 taken from a patient diagnosed on January 26 2020 after travelling to Wuhan, China. According to the report, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the scientists recorded “rapid viral replication” of COVID-19 after its exposure to the lungs, reaching “full cellular infection” after just six hours. After 48 hours, the innate immune response of the body was triggered. After sixty hours, some cells in the lungs began to disintegrate, damaging the lung tissue.

The team noted that the damage inflicted on the ‘mini-lungs’ occurred rather more quickly than the ten days generally recorded between exposure and clinical symptoms in patients. Possible explanations were that a considerable number of cells needed to be inflamed by the virus before symptoms begin to show, or that the virus takes several days to travel from the upper respiratory tract into the lungs.

Dr Young Seok Ju, the co-senior author and an Associate Professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, spoke to the University: “Based on our model we can tackle many unanswered key questions, such as understanding genetic susceptibility to COVID-19, assessing the relative infectivity of viral mutants, and revealing the damage processes of the virus in human alveolar cells.”

The team hope to later use their technique to grow organoids from tissue belonging to at-risk groups to better investigate the specific impact on those most vulnerable.

Featured image credit: Geograph, Creative Commons License