‘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.

Rare Disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and Heart Function: Breakthroughs for Three CIRM-Funded Studies

This past week, there has been a lot of mention of CIRM funded studies that really highlight the importance of the work we support and the different disease areas we make an impact on. This includes important research related to rare disease, Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), and heart function. Below is a summary of the promising CIRM-funded studies released this past week for each one of these areas.

Rare Disease

Comparison of normal (left) and Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) brains (right) at age 2. 

Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD) is a rare genetic condition affecting boys. It can be fatal before 10 years of age and symptoms of the disease include weakness and breathing difficulties. PMD is caused by a disruption in the formation of myelin, a type of insulation around nerve fibers that allows electrical signals in the brain to travel quickly. Without proper signaling, the brain has difficulty communicating with the rest of the body. Despite knowing what causes PMD, it has been difficult to understand why there is a disruption of myelin formation in the first place.

However, in a CIRM-funded study, Dr. David Rowitch, alongside a team of researchers at UCSF, Stanford, and the University of Cambridge, has been developing potential stem cell therapies to reverse or prevent myelin loss in PMD patients.

Two new studies, of which Dr. Rowitch is the primary author, published in Cell Stem Cell, and Stem Cell Reports, respectively report promising progress in using stem cells derived from patients to identify novel PMD drugs and in efforts to treat the disease by directly transplanting neural stem cells into patients’ brains. 

In a UCSF press release, Dr. Rowitch talks about the implications of his findings, stating that,

“Together these studies advance the field of stem cell medicine by showing how a drug therapy could benefit myelination and also that neural stem cell transplantation directly into the brains of boys with PMD is safe.”

Type 1 Diabetes

Viacyte, a company that is developing a treatment for Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), announced in a press release that the company presented preliminary data from a CIRM-funded clinical trial that shows promising results. T1D is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, a hormone that enables our bodies to break down sugar in the blood. CIRM has been funding ViaCyte from it’s very earliest days, investing more than $72 million into the company.

The study uses pancreatic precursor cells, which are derived from stem cells, and implants them into patients in an encapsulation device. The preliminary data showed that the implanted cells, when effectively engrafted, are capable of producing circulating C-peptide, a biomarker for insulin, in patients with T1D. Optimization of the procedure needs to be explored further.

“This is encouraging news,” said Dr. Maria Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “We are very aware of the major biologic and technical challenges of an implantable cell therapy for Type 1 Diabetes, so this early biologic signal in patients is an important step for the Viacyte program.”

Heart Function

Although various genome studies have uncovered over 500 genetic variants linked to heart function, such as irregular heart rhythms and heart rate, it has been unclear exactly how they influence heart function.

In a CIRM-funded study, Dr. Kelly Frazer and her team at UCSD studied this link further by deriving heart cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells were in turn derived from skin samples of seven family members. After conducting extensive genome-wide analysis, the team discovered that many of these genetic variations influence heart function because they affect the binding of a protein called NKX2-5.

In a press release by UCSD, Dr. Frazer elaborated on the important role this protein plays by stating that,

“NKX2-5 binds to many different places in the genome near heart genes, so it makes sense that variation in the factor itself or the DNA to which it binds would affect that function. As a result, we are finding that multiple heart-related traits can share a common mechanism — in this case, differential binding of NKX2-5 due to DNA variants.”

The full results of this study were published in Nature Genetics.

Stem Cell Roundup: Artificial Embryos to Study Miscarriage and ALS Insight – Muscle Repair Cells Go Rogue

Stem Cell Image of the Week: Artificial embryos for studying miscarriage (Adonica Shaw)

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Mouse embryos artificially generated by combining three types of stem cells.
Image: University of Cambridge.

This week’s stem cell image of the week comes from a team of researchers from The University of Cambridge who published research in Nature Cell Biology earlier this week indicating they’d achieved a breakthrough in stem cell research that resulted in the generation of a key developmental step that’d never before been achieved when trying to generate an artificial embryo.

To create the artificial embryo, the scientists combined mouse embryonic stem cells with two other types of stem cells that are present in the very earliest stages of embryo development. The reseachers grew the three stem cell types into a dish and coaxed them into simulating a process called gastrulation – one of the very first events that happens during a creature’s development in which the early embryo begins reorganizing into more and more complex multilayer organ structures.

In an interview with The Next Web (TNW), Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who led the research team, says:

”Our artificial embryos underwent the most important event in life in the culture dish. They are now extremely close to real embryos. To develop further, they would have to implant into the body of the mother or an artificial placenta.”

The goal of this research isn’t to create mice on demand. Its purpose is to gain insights into early life development. And that could lead to a giant leap in our understanding of what happens during the period in a woman’s pregnancy where the risk of miscarriage is highest.

According to professor Zernicka-Goetz,

magda3

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, PhD

“We can also now try to apply this to the equivalent human stem cell types and so study the very earliest events in human embryo development without actually having to use natural human embryos.The early stages of embryo development are when a large proportion of pregnancies are lost and yet it is a stage that we know very little about. Now we have a way of simulating embryonic development in the culture dish, so it should be possible to understand exactly what is going on during this remarkable period in an embryo’s life, and why sometimes this process fails.”

Muscle repair cells go rogue – a possible drug target for ALS?
Call it a case of a good cell gone bad. This week researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, report in Nature Cell Biology that fibro-adipogenic progenitors (FAPs) – cells that are critical in coordinating the repair of torn muscles – can turn rogue, causing muscles to wither and scar. This “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hype” discovery may lead to novel treatments for a number of incurable disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and spinal cord injury.

drjekyllmrhy

Senior author Pier Lorenzo Puri, M.D. (right) and co-first author Luca Madaro, Ph.D. Credit: Fondazione Santa Lucia IRCCS

When muscle is strained, whether due to an acute injury or even weight-lighting, a consistent order of events occurs within the muscle. FAB cells enter the muscle tissue after immune cells called macrophages come in and gobble up dead tissue but before muscle stem cells are stimulated to regenerate the lost muscle. However, to the researchers’ surprise, something entirely different happens in the case of neuromuscular disorders like ALS where nerve signal connections to the muscles degenerate.

Once nerves are no longer attached to muscle and stop sending movement signals from the brain, the macrophages don’t infiltrate the muscle and instead the FAPs pile up in the muscle and never leave. And as a result, muscle stem cells are never activated. In ALS patients, this cellular train crash leads to progressive loss of muscle control to move the limbs and ultimately even to breathe.

The promising news from these findings, which were funded in part by CIRM, is that the team identified of an out-of-whack cell signaling pathway that is responsible for the breakdown in the rogue function of the FAP cells. The researchers hope further studies of this pathway’s role in muscle degeneration may lead to novel therapies and disease-screening technologies for ALS and other motor neuron diseases.