Newcastle University: Covid-19 studies are bolstered by a model of cells found in the lungs

This information, reported today in the STEM CELLS journal, paves the way for broader studies of viral lung infections using a cost-effective system that can easily be manufactured on a large scale.

Covid-19, which to date has resulted in more than 3.5 million deaths worldwide, has brought on an urgent need for airway models that can be used to develop effective therapies.

While the use of in vitro (outside the body) models generated from primary pulmonary epithelial cells that mimick the human airways has increased in popularity over recent years, their availability is limited to primary samples that can differ significantly depending on the various donors’ genetic backgrounds.

Adult stem cells
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) offer a potential way around this drawback. Generated from adult stem cells found in fat, skin, blood and elsewhere, they can be reprogrammed to become every other cell type in the body, including those making up the airways.

Additionally, iPSCs can propagate indefinitely and, thus, provide a large supply of cells with the genetic background of a single donor, rather than the varied backgrounds of the multiple donors hindering primary pulmonary epithelial cell models.

In the study, airway epithelial cells were generated from iPSCs (using a mixed population of lung progenitors) by culturing them on a polyester membrane to allow formation of a confluent monolayer, then exposing them to an air liquid interface to induce differentiation into a pseudostratified epithelial model.

The researchers then went on to demonstrate that their model is composed of the cell types found in the human upper airway epithelium — including functional ciliated cells — and that the cells are capable of secreting mucus and of being readily infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

Lyle Armstrong, a professor of stem cell sciences at Newcastle University, is corresponding author on the study.

He said: “The infected model cells also secreted cytokines at levels corresponding to the behaviour of the airway epithelium in the body following SARS-CoV-2 infection.

“Our protocol not only simplifies the manufacture of cellular models of the human upper airways,” he added, “but it has a distinct advantage in that we have eliminated the need for primary samples that differ in genetic backgrounds. Our next step will be to expand on this model by including immune cell components.”

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