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Single-Cell Study Offers New Clue into Causes of Cystic Fibrosis

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Healthy airways (left) show well-defined layers of ciliated cells (green) and basal stem cells (red). In airways affected by cystic fibrosis (right), the layers are disrupted, and a transitioning cell type (red and green in the same cell).
Credit: Carraro G, Nature, 2021

More than 30 years ago, I co-led the Michigan-Toronto team that discovered that cystic fibrosis (CF) is caused by an inherited misspelling in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene [1]. The CFTR protein’s normal function on the surface of epithelial cells is to serve as a gated channel for chloride ions to pass in and out of the cell. But this function is lost in individuals for whom both copies of CFTR are misspelled. As a consequence, water and salt get out of balance, leading to the production of the thick mucus that leaves people with CF prone to life-threatening lung infections.

It took three decades, but that CFTR gene discovery has now led to the development of a precise triple drug therapy that activates the dysfunctional CFTR protein and provides major benefit to most children and adults with CF. But about 10 percent of individuals with CF have mutations that result in the production of virtually no CFTR protein, which means there is nothing for current triple therapy to correct or activate.

That’s why more basic research is needed to tease out other factors that contribute to CF and, if treatable, could help even more people control the condition and live longer lives with less chronic illness. A recent NIH-supported study, published in the journal Nature Medicine [2], offers an interesting basic clue, and it’s visible in the image above.

The healthy lung tissue (left) shows a well-defined and orderly layer of ciliated cells (green), which use hair-like extensions to clear away mucus and debris. Running closely alongside it is a layer of basal cells (outlined in red), which includes stem cells that are essential for repairing and regenerating upper airway tissue. (DNA indicating the position of cell is stained in blue).

In the CF-affected airways (right), those same cell types are present. However, compared to the healthy lung tissue, they appear to be in a state of disarray. Upon closer inspection, there’s something else that’s unusual if you look carefully: large numbers of a third, transitional cell subtype (outlined in red with green in the nucleus) that combines properties of both basal stem cells and ciliated cells, which is suggestive of cells in transition. The image below more clearly shows these cells (yellow arrows).

Photomicroscopy showing red basal cells below green ciliated cells, with transitional cells between showing green centers and red outlines
Credit: Carraro G, Nature, 2021

The increased number of cells with transitional characteristics suggests an unsuccessful attempt by the lungs to produce more cells capable of clearing the mucus buildup that occurs in airways of people with CF. The data offer an important foundation and reference for continued study.

These findings come from a team led by Kathrin Plath and Brigitte Gomperts, University of California, Los Angeles; John Mahoney, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Lexington, MA; and Barry Stripp, Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles. Together with their lab members, they’re part of a larger research team assembled through the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Epithelial Stem Cell Consortium, which seeks to learn how the disease changes the lung’s cellular makeup and use that new knowledge to make treatment advances.

In this study, researchers analyzed the lungs of 19 people with CF and another 19 individuals with no evidence of lung disease. Those with CF had donated their lungs for research in the process of receiving a lung transplant. Those with healthy lungs were organ donors who died of other causes.

The researchers analyzed, one by one, many thousands of cells from the airway and classified them into subtypes based on their distinctive RNA patterns. Those patterns indicate which genes are switched on or off in each cell, as well as the degree to which they are activated. Using a sophisticated computer-based approach to sift through and compare data, the team created a comprehensive catalog of cell types and subtypes present in healthy airways and in those affected by CF.

The new catalogs also revealed that the airways of people with CF had alterations in the types and proportions of basal cells. Those differences included a relative overabundance of cells that appeared to be transitioning from basal stem cells into the specialized ciliated cells, which are so essential for clearing mucus from the lungs.

We are not yet at our journey’s end when it comes to realizing the full dream of defeating CF. For the 10 percent of CF patients who don’t benefit from the triple-drug therapy, the continuing work to find other treatment strategies should be encouraging news. Keep daring to dream of breathing free. Through continued research, we can make the story of CF into history!


[1] Identification of the cystic fibrosis gene: chromosome walking and jumping. Rommens JM, Iannuzzi MC, Kerem B, Drumm ML, Melmer G, Dean M, Rozmahel R, Cole JL, Kennedy D, Hidaka N, et al. Science.1989 Sep 8;245(4922):1059-65.

[2] Transcriptional analysis of cystic fibrosis airways at single-cell resolution reveals altered epithelial cell states and composition. Carraro G, Langerman J, Sabri S, Lorenzana Z, Purkayastha A, Zhang G, Konda B, Aros CJ, Calvert BA, Szymaniak A, Wilson E, Mulligan M, Bhatt P, Lu J, Vijayaraj P, Yao C, Shia DW, Lund AJ, Israely E, Rickabaugh TM, Ernst J, Mense M, Randell SH, Vladar EK, Ryan AL, Plath K, Mahoney JE, Stripp BR, Gomperts BN. Nat Med. 2021 May;27(5):806-814.


Cystic Fibrosis (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Kathrin Plath (University of California, Los Angeles)

Brigitte Gomperts (UCLA)

Stripp Lab (Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles)

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (Lexington, MA)

Epithelial Stem Cell Consortium (Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Lexington, MA)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

The Prime Cellular Targets for the Novel Coronavirus

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Credit: NIH

There’s still a lot to learn about SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But it has been remarkable and gratifying to watch researchers from around the world pull together and share their time, expertise, and hard-earned data in the urgent quest to control this devastating virus.

That collaborative spirit was on full display in a recent study that characterized the specific human cells that SARS-CoV-2 likely singles out for infection [1]. This information can now be used to study precisely how each cell type interacts with the virus. It might ultimately help to explain why some people are more susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 than others, and how exactly to target the virus with drugs, immunotherapies, and vaccines to prevent or treat infections.

This work was driven by the mostly shuttered labs of Alex K. Shalek, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge; and Jose Ordovas-Montanes at Boston Children’s Hospital. In the end, it brought together (if only remotely) dozens of their colleagues in the Human Cell Atlas Lung Biological Network and others across the U.S., Europe, and South Africa.

The project began when Shalek, Ordovas-Montanes, and others read that before infecting human cells, SARS-CoV-2 docks on a protein receptor called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). This enzyme plays a role in helping the body maintain blood pressure and fluid balance.

The group was intrigued, especially when they also learned about a second enzyme that the virus uses to enter cells. This enzyme goes by the long acronym TMPRSS2, and it gets “tricked” into priming the spike proteins that cover SARS-CoV-2 to attack the cell. It’s the combination of these two proteins that provide a welcome mat for the virus.

Shalek, Ordovas-Montanes, and an international team including graduate students, post-docs, staff scientists, and principal investigators decided to dig a little deeper to find out precisely where in the body one finds cells that express this gene combination. Their curiosity took them to the wealth of data they and others had generated from model organisms and humans, the latter as part of the Human Cell Atlas. This collaborative international project is producing a comprehensive reference map of all human cells. For its first draft, the Human Cell Atlas aims to gather information on at least 10 billion cells.

To gather this information, the project relies, in part, on relatively new capabilities in sequencing the RNA of individual cells. Keep in mind that every cell in the body has essentially the same DNA genome. But different cells use different programs to decide which genes to turn on—expressing those as RNA molecules that can be translated into protein. The single-cell analysis of RNA allows them to characterize the gene expression and activities within each and every unique cell type. Based on what was known about the virus and the symptoms of COVID-19, the team focused their attention on the hundreds of cell types they identified in the lungs, nasal passages, and intestines.

As reported in Cell, by filtering through the data to identify cells that express ACE2 and TMPRSS2, the researchers narrowed the list of cell types in the nasal passages down to the mucus-producing goblet secretory cells. In the lung, evidence for activity of these two genes turned up in cells called type II pneumocytes, which line small air sacs known as alveoli and help to keep them open. In the intestine, it was the absorptive enterocytes, which play an important role in the body’s ability to take in nutrients.

The data also turned up another unexpected and potentially important connection. In these cells of interest, all of which are found in epithelial tissues that cover or line body surfaces, the ACE2 gene appeared to ramp up its activity in concert with other genes known to respond to interferon, a protein that the body makes in response to viral infections.

To dig further in the lab, the researchers treated cultured cells that line airways in the lungs with interferon. And indeed, the treatment increased ACE2 expression.

Earlier studies have suggested that ACE2 helps the lungs to tolerate damage. Completely missed was its connection to the interferon response. The researchers now suspect that’s because it hadn’t been studied in these specific human epithelial cells before.

The discovery suggests that SARS-CoV-2 and potentially other coronaviruses that rely on ACE2 may take advantage of the immune system’s natural defenses. When the body responds to the infection by producing more interferon, that in turn results in production of more ACE2, enhancing the ability of the virus to attach more readily to lung cells. While much more work is needed, the finding indicates that any potential use of interferon as a treatment to fight COVID-19 will require careful monitoring to determine if and when it might help patients.

It’s clear that these new findings, from data that weren’t originally generated with COVID-19 in mind, contained several potentially important new leads. This is another demonstration of the value of basic science. We can also rest assured that, with the outpouring of effort from members of the scientific community around the globe to meet this new challenge, progress along these and many other fronts will continue at a remarkable pace.


[1] SARS-CoV-2 receptor ACE2 is an interferon-stimulated gene in human airway epithelial cells and is detected in specific cell subsets across tissues. Ziegler, CGK et al. Cell. April 20, 2020.


Coronaviruses (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Human Cell Atlas (Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA)

Shalek Lab (Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

Ordovas-Montanes Lab (Boston Children’s Hospital, MA)

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

Possible Explanation for Why Some People Get More Colds

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Getty Images/yourstockbank

Colds are just an occasional nuisance for many folks, but some individuals seem to come down with them much more frequently. Now, NIH-funded researchers have uncovered some new clues as to why.

In their study, the researchers found that the cells that line our airways are quite adept at defending against cold-causing rhinoviruses. But there’s a tradeoff. When these cells are busy defending against tissue damage due to cigarette smoke, pollen, pollutants, and/or other airborne irritants, their ability to fend off such viruses is significantly reduced [1].

The new findings may open the door to better strategies for preventing the common cold, as well as other types of respiratory tract infections caused by non-flu viruses. Even small improvements in prevention could have big implications for our nation’s health and economy. Every year, Americans come down with more than 500 million colds and similar infections, leading to reduced work productivity, medical expenses, and other costs approaching $40 billion [2].