‘Mini lung’ model shows scientists early stages of new coronavirus infection

Representative image of three-dimensional human lung alveolar organoid showing alveolar stem cell marker, HTII-280 (red) and SARS-CoV-2 entry protein, ACE2 (green)
Image Credit: Jeonghwan Youk, Taewoo Kim, and Seon Pyo Hong

The development of organoid modeling has significantly expanded our understanding of human organs and the diseases that can affect them. For those unfamiliar with the term, an organoid is a miniaturized, simplified version of an organ produced that is also three dimensional.

Recently, scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Korea Advanced Institute Science and Technology (KAIST) were able to develop ‘mini lungs’ from donated tissue and use them to uncover the mechanisms behind the new coronavirus infection and the early immune response in the lungs.

SARS-CoV-2, the name of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, first appears in the alveoli, which are tiny air sacs in the lungs that take up the oxygen we breathe and exchange it with carbon dioxide.

To better understand how SARS-CoV-2 infects the lungs and causes COVID-19, the team used donated tissue to extract a specific type of lung cell. They then reprogrammed these cells to an earlier stem cell-like state and used them to grow the lung organoids.

The team then infected the ‘mini lungs’ with a strain of SARS-CoV-2 taken from a patient in South Korea who was diagnosed with COVID-19 after traveling to Wuhan, China.

Within the newly infected lung organoids, the team observed that the virus began to replicate rapidly, reaching full cellular infection in just six hours. Replication allows the virus to spread the infection throughout the body to other cells and tissue. The infected cells also began to produce interferons, which are proteins that act as warning signals to healthy cells, telling them to activate their antiviral defenses. After two days, the interferons triggered an immune response and the cells started fighting back against infection. Two and a half days after infection, some of the alveolar cells began to disintegrate, leading to cell death and damage to the lung tissue.

In a news release, Dr. Joo-Hyeon Lee, co-senior author of this study, elaborates on how he hopes this study can help more vulnerable sections of the population.

“We hope to use our technique to grow these 3D models from cells of patients who are particularly vulnerable to infection, such as the elderly or people with diseased lungs, and find out what happens to their tissue.”

The complete study was published in Cell Stem Cell.

CIRM has funded two discovery stage research projects that use lung organoids to look at potential treatments for COVID-19. One is being conducted by Dr. Brigitte Gomperts at UCLA and the other by Dr. Evan Snyder at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

An Atlas of the Human Heart that May Guide Development of New Therapies

By Lisa Kadyk, PhD. CIRM Senior Science Officer

Illustration of a man’s heart – Courtesy Science Photo

I love maps; I still have auto club maps of various parts of the country in my car.  But, to tell the truth, those maps just don’t have as much information as I can get by typing in an address on my cell phone.  Technological advances in global positioning systems, cellular service, data gathering and storage, etc. have made my beloved paper maps a bit of a relic.  

Similarly, technological advances have enabled scientists to begin making maps of human tissues and organs at a level of detail that was previously unimaginable.  Hundreds of thousands of single cells can be profiled in parallel, examining expression of RNA and proteins.  These data, in combination with new three-dimensional spatial analysis techniques and sophisticated computational algorithms, allow high resolution mapping of all the cells in a given tissue or organ.

Given these new capabilities, an international “Human Cell Atlas Consortium” published a white paper in 2017 outlining plans and strategies to build comprehensive reference maps of all human cells, organ by organ.  The intent of building such an atlas is to give a much better understanding of the biology and physiology of normal human tissues, as well as to give new insights into the nature of diseases affecting those tissues and to point the way to developing new therapies. 

One example of this new breed of cartography was published September 24 in the journal Nature, in a paper called simply “Cells of the Human Heart”.   This tour-de-force effort was led by scientists from Harvard Medical School, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin and Imperial College, London.  These teams and their collaborators analyzed about 500,000 cells from six different regions of the healthy adult human heart, using post-mortem organs from 14 donors.  They examined RNA and protein expression and mapped the distribution of different types of cells in each region of the heart.  In addition, they made comparisons of male and female hearts, and identified cells expressing genes known to be associated with different types of heart disease.  

One of the take-home messages from this study is that there is a lot of cellular complexity in the heart – with 11 major cell types (examples include atrial and ventricular cardiomyocytes, fibroblasts and smooth muscle cells), as well as multiple subpopulations within each of those types.  Also notable is the different distribution of cells between the atria (which are at the top of the heart and receive the blood) and ventricles (which are on the bottom of the heart and pump blood out): on average, close to half of the cells in the ventricles are cardiomyocytes, whereas only a third of the cells in the atria are cardiomyocytes.  Finally, there is a significantly higher percentage of cardiomyocytes in the ventricles of women (56%) than in the ventricles of men (47%).    The authors speculate that this latter difference might explain the higher volume of blood pumped per beat in women and lower rates of cardiovascular disease.  

The authors gave a few examples of how their data can be used for a better understanding of heart disease.  For example, they identified a specific subpopulation of cardiomyocytes that expresses genes associated with atrial fibrillation, suggesting that the defect may be associated with those cells.   Similarly, they found that a specific neuronal cell type expresses genes that are associated with a particular ventricular dysfunction associated with heart failure.    In addition, the authors identified which cells in the heart express the highest levels of the SARS-CoV-2 receptor, ACE2, including pericytes, fibroblasts and cardiomyocytes.  

Now that these data are accessible for exploration at www.heartcellatlas.org, I have no doubt that many scientific explorers will begin to navigate to a more complete understanding of both the healthy and diseased heart, and ultimately to new treatments for heart disease.

CIRM partners with UCLA scientists to take on COVID-19

Don’t you love it when someone does your job for you and does it so well you have no need to add anything to it! Doesn’t happen very often – sad to say – but this week our friends at UCLA wrote a great article describing the work they are doing to target COVID-19. Best of all, all the work described is funded by CIRM. So read, and enjoy.

Two scientists in a lab at the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center

By Tiare Dunlap, UCLA

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, UCLA researchers are rising to the occasion by channeling their specialized expertise to seek new and creative ways to reduce the spread of the virus and save lives. Using years’ — or even decades’ — worth of knowledge they’ve acquired studying other diseases and biological processes, many of them have shifted their focus to the novel coronavirus, and they’re collaborating across disciplines as they work toward new diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines.

At UCLA, more than 230 research projects, including several being led by members of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, are contributing to that mission.

Dr. Brititte Gomperts, Photo courtesy UCLA

“As a result of the pandemic, everyone on campus is committed to finding ways that their unique expertise can help out,” said Dr. Brigitte Gomperts, professor and vice chair of research in pediatric hematology-oncology and pulmonary medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Children’s Discovery and Innovation Institute. “So many of my colleagues have repurposed their labs to work on the virus. It’s very seldom that you have one thing that everybody’s working on, and it has been truly inspiring to see how everyone has come together to try and solve this.”

Here’s a look at five projects in which UCLA scientists are using stem cells — which can self-replicate and give rise to all cell types — to take on COVID-19.

Using lung organoids as models to test possible treatments 

Dr. Brigitte Gomperts

Gomperts has spent years perfecting methods for creating stem cell–derived three-dimensional lung organoids. Now, she’s using those organoids to study how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, affects lung tissue and to rapidly screen thousands of prospective treatments. Because the organoids are grown from human cells and reflect the cell types and architecture of the lungs, they can offer unprecedented insights into how the virus infects and damages the organ.  

Gomperts is collaborating with UCLA colleagues Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, a virologist, and Robert Damoiseaux, an expert in molecular screening. Their goal is to find an existing therapy that could be used to reduce the spread of infection and associated damage in the lungs.

“We’re starting with drugs that have already been tested in humans because our goal is to find a therapy that can treat patients with COVID-19 as soon as possible,” Gomperts said. Read more.

Repurposing a cancer therapy

Dr. Vaithi Arumugaswami: Photo courtesy UCLA

Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the Geffen School of Medicine

In addition to collaborating with Gomperts, Arumugaswami and Damoiseaux identified the cancer drug Berzosertib as a possible treatment for COVID-19 after screening 430 drug candidates. The drug, which is currently being tested in clinical trials for cancer, works by blocking a DNA repair process that is exploited by solid cancers and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the UCLA scientists found that it is very effective at limiting viral replication and cell death. 

“Clinical trials have shown that Berzosertib blocks the DNA repair pathway in cancer cells, but has no effects on normal, healthy cells,” Arumugaswami said.

Now, Arumugaswami and Gustavo Garcia Jr., a staff research associate, are testing Berzosertib and additional drug combinations on lung organoids developed in Gomperts’ lab and stem cell–derived heart cells infected with SARS-CoV-2. They suspect that if the drug is administered soon after diagnosis, it could limit the spread of infection and prevent complications. Read more.

Studying the immune response to the virus

Dr. Gay Crooks

Dr. Gay Crooks, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine, and co-director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center; and Dr. Christopher Seet,  

assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the Geffen School of Medicine

Crooks and Seet are using stem cells to model how immune cells recognize and fight the virus in a lab dish. To do that, they’re infecting blood-forming stem cells — which can give rise to all blood and immune cells — from healthy donors with parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and then coaxing the stem cells to produce immune cells called dendritic cells. Dendritic cells devour viral proteins, chop them up into pieces and then present those pieces to other immune cells called T cells to provoke a response.

By studying that process, Crooks and Seet hope to identify which parts of the virus provoke the strongest T-cell responses. Developing an effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 will require a deep understanding of how the immune system responds to the virus, and this work could be an important step in that direction, giving researchers and clinicians a way to gauge the effectiveness of possible vaccines.

“When we started developing this project some years ago, we had no idea it would be so useful for studying a viral infection — any viral infection,” Crooks said. “It was only because we already had these tools in place that we could spring into action so fast.” Read more.

Developing a booster that could help a vaccine last longer

Song Li, chair and professor of bioengineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering

A COVID-19 vaccine will need to provide long-term protection from infection. But how long a vaccine protects from infection isn’t solely dependent on the vaccine.

The human body relies on long-living immune cells called T memory stem cells that guard against pathogens such as viruses and bacteria that the body has encountered before. Unfortunately, the body’s capacity to form T memory stem cells decreases with age. So no matter how well designed a vaccine is, older adults who don’t have enough of a response from T memory stem cells will not be protected long-term.

To address that issue, Li is developing an injectable biomaterial vaccine booster that will stimulate the formation of T memory stem cells. The booster is made up of engineered materials that release chemical messengers to stimulate the production of T memory stem cells. When combined with an eventual SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, they would prompt the body to produce immune cells primed to recognize and eliminate the virus over the long term.

“I consider it my responsibility as a scientist and an engineer to translate scientific findings into applications to help people and the community,” Li said. Read more.

Creating an off-the-shelf cell therapy

Lili Yang, associate professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College

Invariant natural killer T cells, or iNKT cells, are the special forces of the immune system. They’re extremely powerful and can immediately recognize and respond to many different intruders, from infections to cancer.

Yang is testing whether iNKT cells would make a particularly effective treatment for COVID-19 because they have the capacity to kill virally infected cells, offer protection from reinfection and rein in the excessive inflammation caused by a hyperactive immune response to the virus, which is thought to be a major cause of tissue damage and death in people with the disease.

One catch, though, is that iNKT cells are incredibly scarce: One drop of human blood contains around 10 million blood cells but only around 10 iNKT cells. That’s where Yang’s research comes in. Over the past several years, she has developed a method for generating large numbers of iNKT cells from blood-forming stem cells. While that work was aimed at creating a treatment for cancer, Yang’s lab has adapted its work over the past few months to test how effective stem cell–derived iNKT cells could be in fighting COVID-19. With her colleagues, she has been studying how the cells work in fighting the disease in models of SARS-CoV-2 infection that are grown from human kidney and lung cells.

“My lab has been developing an iNKT cell therapy for cancer for years,” Yang said. “This means a big part of the work is already done. We are repurposing a potential therapy that is very far along in development to treat COVID-19.” Read more.

“Our center is proud to join CIRM in supporting these researchers as they adapt projects that have spent years in development to meet the urgent need for therapies and vaccines for COVID-19,” said Dr. Owen Witte, founding director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center. “This moment highlights the importance of funding scientific research so that we may have the foundational knowledge to meet new challenges as they arise.” Crooks, Gomperts, Seet and Yang are all members of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Damoiseaux is a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology and director of the Molecular Shared Resource Center at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA

A ready-made approach to tackling COVID-19

Coronavirus particles, illustration.

In late March the CIRM Board approved $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 research. The idea was to support great ideas from California’s researchers, some of which had already been tested for different conditions, and see if they could help in finding treatments or a vaccine for the coronavirus.

Less than a month later we were funding a clinical trial and two other projects, one that targeted a special kind of immune system cell that has the potential to fight the virus.

Our friends at UCLA have just written a terrific piece on this project and the team that came up with the idea. Here is that article.

Researchers use stem cells to model the immune response to COVID-19

By Tiare Dunlap

Cities across the United States are opening back up, but we’re still a long way from making the COVID-19 pandemic history. To truly accomplish that, we need to have a vaccine that can stop the spread of infection.

But to develop an effective vaccine, we need to understand how the immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Vaccines work by imitating infection. They expose a person’s immune system to a weakened version or component of the virus they are intended to protect against. This essentially prepares the immune system to fight the virus ahead of time, so that if a person is exposed to the real virus, their immune system can quickly recognize the enemy and fight the infection. Vaccines need to contain the right parts of the virus to provoke a strong immune response and create long-term protection.

Most of the vaccines in development for SARS CoV-2 are using part of the virus to provoke the immune system to produce proteins called antibodies that neutralize the virus. Another way a vaccine could create protection against the virus is by activating the T cells of the immune system.

T cells specifically “recognize” virus-infected cells, and these kinds of responses may be especially important for providing long-term protection against the virus. One challenge for researchers is that they have only had a few months to study how the immune system protects against SARS CoV-2, and in particular, which parts of the virus provoke the best T-cell responses.

This is where immunotherapy researchers and UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research members Dr. Gay Crooks and Dr. Christopher Seet come in.

Dr. Gay Crooks: Photo courtesy UCLA

For years, they have been perfecting an innovative technology that uses blood-forming stem cells — which can give rise to all types of blood and immune cells — to produce a rare and powerful subset of immune cells called type 1 dendritic cells. Type 1 dendritic cells play an essential role in the immune response by devouring foreign proteins, termed antigens, from virus-infected cells and then chopping them into fragments. Dendritic cells then use these protein fragments to trigger T cells to mount an immune response.

Dr. Christopher Seet: Photo courtesy UCLA

Using this technology, Crooks and Seet are working to pinpoint which specific parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus provoke the strongest T-cell responses.

Building long-lasting immunity

“We know from a lot of research into other viral infections and also in cancer immunotherapy, that T-cell responses are really important for long-lasting immunity,” said Seet, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “And so this approach will allow us to better characterize the T-cell response to SARS-CoV-2 and focus vaccine and therapeutic development on those parts of the virus that induce strong T-cell immunity.”

This project was recently awarded $150,000 from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem cell agency. The award was matched by the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

Crooks’ and Seet’s project uses blood-forming stem cells taken from healthy donors and infected with a virus containing antigens from SARS-CoV-2. They then direct these stem cells to produce large numbers of type 1 dendritic cells using a new method developed by Seet and Suwen Li, a graduate student in Crooks’ lab. Both Seet and Li are graduates of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center’s training program.

“The dendritic cells we are able to make using this process are really good at chopping up viral antigens and eliciting strong immune responses from T cells,” said Crooks, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at the medical school and co-director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

When type 1 dendritic cells chop up viral antigens into fragments, they present these fragments on their cell surfaces to T cells. Our bodies produce millions and millions of T cells each day, each with its own unique antigen receptor, however only a few will have a receptor capable of recognizing a specific antigen from a virus.

When a T cell with the right receptor recognizes a viral antigen on a dendritic cell as foreign and dangerous, it sets off a chain of events that activates multiple parts of the immune system to attack cells infected with the virus. This includes clonal expansion, the process by which each responding T cell produces a large number of identical cells, called clones, which are all capable of recognizing the antigen.

“Most of those T cells will go off and fight the infection by killing cells infected with the virus,” said Seet, who, like Crooks, is also a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “However, a small subset of those cells become memory T cells — long-lived T cells that remain in the body for years and protect from future infection by rapidly generating a robust T-cell response if the virus returns. It’s immune memory.”

Producing extremely rare immune cells

This process has historically been particularly challenging to model in the lab, because type 1 dendritic cells are extremely rare — they make up less than 0.1% of cells found in the blood. Now, with this new stem cell technology, Crooks and Seet can produce large numbers of these dendritic cells from blood stem cells donated by healthy people, introduce them to parts of the virus, then see how T cells  taken from the blood can respond in the lab. This process can be repeated over and over using cells taken from a wide range of healthy people.

“The benefit is we can do this very quickly without the need for an actual vaccine trial, so we can very rapidly figure out in the lab which parts of the virus induce the best T-cell responses across many individuals,” Seet said.

The resulting data could be used to inform the development of new vaccines for COVID-19 that improve T-cell responses. And the data about which viral antigens are most important to the T cells could also be used to monitor the effectiveness of existing vaccine candidates, and an individual’s immune status to the virus.

“There are dozens of vaccine candidates in development right now, with three or four of them already in clinical trials,” Seet said. “We all hope one or more will be effective at producing immediate and long-lasting immunity. But as there is so much we don’t know about this new virus, we’re still going to need to really dig in to understand how our immune systems can best protect us from infection.”

Supporting basic research into our body’s own processes that can inform new strategies to fight disease is central to the mission of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

“When we started developing this project some years ago, we had no idea it would be so useful for studying a viral infection, any viral infection,” Crooks said. “And it was only because we already had these tools in place that we could spring into action so fast.”