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Mini-Lungs in a Lab Dish Mimic Early COVID-19 Infection

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Credit: Arvind Konkimalla, Tata Lab, Duke University, Durham, NC

Researchers have become skilled at growing an array of miniature human organs in the lab. Such lab-grown “organoids” have been put to work to better understand diabetes, fatty liver disease, color vision, and much more. Now, NIH-funded researchers have applied this remarkable lab tool to produce mini-lungs to study SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The intriguing bubble-like structures (red/clear) in the mini-lung pictured above represent developing alveoli, the tiny air sacs in our lungs, where COVID-19 infections often begin. In this organoid, the air sacs consist of many thousands of cells, all of which arose from a single adult stem cell isolated from tissues found deep within healthy human lungs. When carefully nurtured in lab dishes, those so-called alveolar epithelial type-2 cells (AT2s) begin to multiply. As they grow, they spontaneously assemble into structures that closely resemble alveoli.

A team led by Purushothama Rao Tata, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, developed these mini-lungs in a quest to understand how adult stem cells help to regenerate damaged tissue in the deepest recesses of the lungs, where SARS-CoV-2 attacks. In earlier studies, the researchers had shown it was possible for these cells to produce miniature alveoli. But there was a problem: the “soup” they used to nurture the growing cells included ingredients that weren’t well defined, making it hard to characterize the experiments fully.

In the study, now reported in Cell Stem Cell, the researchers found a way to simplify and define that brew. For the first time, they could produce mini-lungs consisting only of human lung cells. By growing them in large numbers in the lab, they can now learn more about SARS-CoV-2 infection and look for new ways to prevent or treat it.

Tata and his collaborators at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have already confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 infects the mini-lungs via the critical ACE2 receptor, just as the virus is known to do in the lungs of an infected person.

Interestingly, the cells also produce cytokines, inflammatory molecules that have been tied to tissue damage. The findings suggest the cytokine signals may come from the lungs themselves, even before immune cells arrive on the scene.

The heavily infected lung cells eventually self-destruct and die. In an unexpected turn of events, they even induce cell death in some neighboring healthy cells that are not infected. The relevance of the studies to the clinic was boosted by the finding that the gene activity patterns in the mini-lungs are a close match to those found in samples taken from six patients with severe COVID-19.

Now that he’s got the recipe down, Tata is busy making organoids and helping to model COVID-19 infections, with the hope of identifying and testing promising new treatments. It’s clear these mini-lungs are breathing some added life into the basic study of COVID-19.


[1] Human lung stem cell-based alveolospheres provide insights into SARS-CoV-2-mediated interferon responses and pneumocyte dysfunction. Katsura H, Sontake V, Tata A, Kobayashi Y, Edwards CE, Heaton BE, Konkimalla A, Asakura T, Mikami Y, Fritch EJ, Lee PJ, Heaton NS, Boucher RC, Randell SH, Baric RS, Tata PR. Cell Stem Cell. 2020 Oct 21:S1934-5909(20)30499-9.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Tata Lab (Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Progress Toward 3D Printed Human Organs

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There’s considerable excitement that 3D printing technology might one day allow scientists to produce fully functional replacement organs from one’s own cells. While there’s still a lot to learn, this video shows just some of the amazing progress that’s now being made.

The video comes from a bioengineering team at Rice University, Houston, that has learned to bioprint the small air sacs in the lungs. When hooked up to a machine that pulsed air in and out of the air sacs, the rhythmic movement helped to mix red blood cells traveling through an associated blood vessel network. Those red cells also took up oxygen in much the way that blood vessels do when surrounding the hundreds of millions of air sacs in our lungs.

As mentioned in the video, one of the biggest technical hurdles in growing fully functional replacement tissues and organs is to find a way to feed the growing tissues with a blood supply and to remove waste products. In this study recently published in Science [1], the NIH-supported team cleared this hurdle by creating an open-source bioprinting technology they call SLATE, which is short for “stereo-lithography apparatus for tissue engineering.”

The SLATE system “grows” soft hydrogel scaffolds one layer at a time. Each layer is printed using a liquid pre-hydrogel solution that solidifies when exposed to blue light. By also projecting light into the hydrogel as a pixelated 3D shape, it’s possible to print complex 3D structures within minutes.

When the researchers first started, their printouts lacked the high resolution, submillimeter-scale channels needed to generate intricate vascular networks. In other manufacturing arenas, light-absorbing chemicals have helped control the conversion from liquid to solid in a very fine polymer layer. But these industrial light-absorbing chemicals are highly toxic and therefore unsuitable for scaffolds that grow living tissues and organs.

The researchers, including Bagrat Grigoryan, Jordan Miller, and Kelly Stevens, wondered whether they could swap out those noxious ingredients with synthetic and natural food dyes widely used in the food industry. These dyes include curcumin, anthocyanin, and tartrazine (yellow dye #5). Their studies showed that those fully biocompatible dyes worked as effective light absorbers, allowing the scientists to recreate the complex architectures of human vasculature. Importantly, the living cells survived within the soft scaffold!

These models are already yielding intriguing new insights into the vascular structures found within our organs and how those architectures may influence function in ways that hadn’t been well understood. In the near term, tissues and organs grown on such scaffolds might also find use as sophisticated, 3D tissue “chips,” with potential for use in studies to predict whether drugs will be safe in humans.

In the long term, this technology may allow production of replacement organs from those needing them. More than 100,000 men, women, and children are on the national transplant waiting list in the United States alone and 20 people die each day waiting for a transplant [2]. Ultimately, with the aid of bioprinting advances like this one, perhaps one day we’ll have a ready supply of perfectly matched and fully functional organs.


[1] Multivascular networks and functional intravascular topologies within biocompatible hydrogels. Grigoryan B, Paulsen SJ, Corbett DC, Sazer DW, Fortin CL, Zaita AJ, Greenfield PT, Calafat NJ, Gounley JP, Ta AH, Johansson F, Randles A, Rosenkrantz JE, Louis-Rosenberg JD, Galie PA, Stevens KR, Miller JS. Science. 2019 May 3;364(6439):458-464.

[2] Organ Donor Statistics, Health Resources & Services Administration, October 2018.


Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Tissue Chip for Drug Screening (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Miller Lab (Rice University, Houston)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund