Lung cell prototypes enhance COVID-19 research

A 3-D rendering of cells is set against a blue backdrop.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, affects multiple organs, including the lungs. To study how SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, gains entry into lung cells and replicates its code, scientists created lung cell models in the lab.

Cell biologists, immunologists, and medical researchers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina used lung tissue samples from donors, and knowledge from mouse models, to simulate COVID-19 in the lung cells. The team infected the cells with SARS-CoV-2 to activate innate immunity, which ran parallel to responses observed in humans. The lab-produced lung cells have realistic features, including angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors, a door for SARS-COV-2 infection, and illustrate how COVID-19 varies from other infections, including influenza and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The team analyzed “cross-talk” between neighboring lung cells, which can result in coordinated immunity, a hyperextended immune response, and cell death. By replicating a range of immune responses to COVID-19 in the cells, the team envisions these models will support research for future treatment, including anti-viral therapies.

The authors note the lung cells allow for a microscopic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but have limitations. First, the prototypes aren’t as complex as cells in human lung tissue. Second, variations in age-specific immune responses weren’t analyzed, but will be helpful to distinguish in future studies. The research was partially funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and appears in
Cell Stem Cell.