Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
More than 3 million people around the world, now tragically including thousands every day in India, have lost their lives to severe COVID-19. Though incredible progress has been made in a little more than a year to develop effective vaccines, diagnostic tests, and treatments, there’s still much we don’t know about what precisely happens in the lungs and other parts of the body that leads to lethal outcomes.
Two recent studies in the journal Nature provide some of the most-detailed analyses yet about the effects on the human body of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 [1,2]. The research shows that in people with advanced infections, SARS-CoV-2 often unleashes a devastating series of host events in the lungs prior to death. These events include runaway inflammation and rampant tissue destruction that the lungs cannot repair.
Both studies were supported by NIH. One comes from a team led by Benjamin Izar, Columbia University, New York. The other involves a group led by Aviv Regev, now at Genentech, and formerly at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA.
Each team analyzed samples of essential tissues gathered from COVID-19 patients shortly after their deaths. Izar’s team set up a rapid autopsy program to collect and freeze samples within hours of death. He and his team performed single-cell RNA sequencing on about 116,000 cells from the lung tissue of 19 men and women. Similarly, Regev’s team developed an autopsy biobank that included 420 total samples from 11 organ systems, which were used to generate multiple single-cell atlases of tissues from the lung, kidney, liver, and heart.
Izar’s team found that the lungs of people who died of COVID-19 were filled with immune cells called macrophages. While macrophages normally help to fight an infectious virus, they seemed in this case to produce a vicious cycle of severe inflammation that further damaged lung tissue. The researchers also discovered that the macrophages produced high levels of IL-1β, a type of small inflammatory protein called a cytokine. This suggests that drugs to reduce effects of IL-1β might have promise to control lung inflammation in the sickest patients.
As a person clears and recovers from a typical respiratory infection, such as the flu, the lung repairs the damage. But in severe COVID-19, both studies suggest this isn’t always possible. Not only does SARS-CoV-2 destroy cells within air sacs, called alveoli, that are essential for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, but the unchecked inflammation apparently also impairs remaining cells from repairing the damage. In fact, the lungs’ regenerative cells are suspended in a kind of reparative limbo, unable to complete the last steps needed to replace healthy alveolar tissue.
In both studies, the lung tissue also contained an unusually large number of fibroblast cells. Izar’s team went a step further to show increased numbers of a specific type of pathological fibroblast, which likely drives the rapid lung scarring (pulmonary fibrosis) seen in severe COVID-19. The findings point to specific fibroblast proteins that may serve as drug targets to block deleterious effects.
Regev’s team also describes how the virus affects other parts of the body. One surprising discovery was there was scant evidence of direct SARS-CoV-2 infection in the liver, kidney, or heart tissue of the deceased. Yet, a closer look heart tissue revealed widespread damage, documenting that many different coronary cell types had altered their genetic programs. It’s still to be determined if that’s because the virus had already been cleared from the heart prior to death. Alternatively, the heart damage might not be caused directly by SARS-CoV-2, and may arise from secondary immune and/or metabolic disruptions.
Together, these two studies provide clearer pictures of the pathology in the most severe and lethal cases of COVID-19. The data from these cell atlases has been made freely available for other researchers around the world to explore and analyze. The hope is that these vast data sets, together with future analyses and studies of people who’ve tragically lost their lives to this pandemic, will improve our understanding of long-term complications in patients who’ve survived. They also will now serve as an important foundational resource for the development of promising therapies, with the goal of preventing future complications and deaths due to COVID-19.
 A molecular single-cell lung atlas of lethal COVID-19. Melms JC, Biermann J, Huang H, Wang Y, Nair A, Tagore S, Katsyv I, Rendeiro AF, Amin AD, Schapiro D, Frangieh CJ, Luoma AM, Filliol A, Fang Y, Ravichandran H, Clausi MG, Alba GA, Rogava M, Chen SW, Ho P, Montoro DT, Kornberg AE, Han AS, Bakhoum MF, Anandasabapathy N, Suárez-Fariñas M, Bakhoum SF, Bram Y, Borczuk A, Guo XV, Lefkowitch JH, Marboe C, Lagana SM, Del Portillo A, Zorn E, Markowitz GS, Schwabe RF, Schwartz RE, Elemento O, Saqi A, Hibshoosh H, Que J, Izar B. Nature. 2021 Apr 29.
 COVID-19 tissue atlases reveal SARS-CoV-2 pathology and cellular targets. Delorey TM, Ziegler CGK, Heimberg G, Normand R, Shalek AK, Villani AC, Rozenblatt-Rosen O, Regev A. et al. Nature. 2021 Apr 29.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Izar Lab (Columbia University, New York)
Aviv Regev (Genentech, South San Francisco, CA)
NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Most of our immune cells circulate throughout the bloodstream to serve as a roving security force against infection. But some immune cells don’t travel much at all and instead safeguard a specific organ or tissue. That’s what you are seeing in this electron micrograph of a type of scavenging macrophage, called a Kupffer cell (green), which resides exclusively in the liver (brown).
Normally, Kupffer cells appear in the liver during the early stages of mammalian development and stay put throughout life to protect liver cells, clean up old red blood cells, and regulate iron levels. But in their experimental system, Christopher Glass and his colleagues from University of California, San Diego, removed all original Kupffer cells from a young mouse to see if this would allow signals from the liver that encourage the development of new Kupffer cells.
The NIH-funded researchers succeeded in setting up the right conditions to spur a heavy influx of circulating precursor immune cells, called monocytes, into the liver, and then prompted those monocytes to turn into the replacement Kupffer cells. In a recent study in the journal Immunity, the team details the specific genomic changes required for the monocytes to differentiate into Kupffer cells . This information will help advance the study of Kupffer cells and their role in many liver diseases, including nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which affects an estimated 3 to 12 percent of U.S. adults .
The new work also has broad implications for immunology research because it provides additional evidence that circulating monocytes contain genomic instructions that, when activated in the right way by nearby cells or other factors, can prompt the monocytes to develop into various, specialized types of scavenging macrophages. For example, in the mouse system, Glass’s team found that the endothelial cells lining the liver’s blood vessels, which is where Kupffer cells hang out, emit biochemical distress signals when their immune neighbors disappear.
While more details need to be worked out, this study is another excellent example of how basic research, including the ability to query single cells about their gene expression programs, is generating fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems. Such knowledge is opening new possibilities to more precise ways of treating and preventing diseases all throughout the body, including those involving Kupffer cells and the liver.
 Liver-Derived Signals Sequentially Reprogram Myeloid Enhancers to Initiate and Maintain Kupffer Cell Identity. Sakai M, Troutman TD, Seidman JS, Ouyang Z, Spann NJ, Abe Y, Ego KM, Bruni CM, Deng Z, Schlachetzki JCM, Nott A, Bennett H, Chang J, Vu BT, Pasillas MP, Link VM, Texari L, Heinz S, Thompson BM, McDonald JG, Geissmann F3, Glass CK. Immunity. 2019 Oct 15;51(4):655-670.
 Recommendations for diagnosis, referral for liver biopsy, and treatment of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. Spengler EK, Loomba R. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2015;90(9):1233–1246.
Liver Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Glass Laboratory (University of California, San Diego)
NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
With advances in induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology, it’s now possible to reprogram adult skin or blood cells to form miniature human organs in a lab dish. While these “organoids” closely mimic the structures of the liver and other vital organs, it’s been tough to get them to represent inflammation, fibrosis, fat accumulation, and many other complex features of disease.
Fatty liver diseases are an increasingly serious health problem. So, I’m pleased to report that, for the first time, researchers have found a reliable way to make organoids that display the hallmarks of those conditions. This “liver in a dish” model will enable the identification and preclinical testing of promising drug targets, helping to accelerate discovery and development of effective new treatments.
Previous methods working with stem cells have yielded liver organoids consisting primarily of epithelial cells, or hepatocytes, which comprise most of the organ. Missing were other key cell types involved in the inflammatory response to fatty liver diseases.
To create a better organoid, the team led by Takanori Takebe, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, focused its effort on patient-derived iPSCs. Takebe and his colleagues devised a special biochemical “recipe” that allowed them to grow liver organoids with sufficient cellular complexity.
As published in Cell Metabolism, the recipe involves a three-step process to coax human iPSCs into forming multi-cellular liver organoids in as little as three weeks. With careful analysis, including of RNA sequencing data, they confirmed that those organoids contained hepatocytes and other supportive cell types. The latter included Kupffer cells, which play a role in inflammation, and stellate cells, the major cell type involved in fibrosis. Fibrosis is the scarring of the liver in response to tissue damage.
Now with a way to make multi-cellular liver organoids, the researchers put them to the test. When exposed to free fatty acids, the organoids gradually accumulated fat in a dose-dependent manner and grew inflamed, which is similar to what happens to people with fatty liver diseases.
The organoids also showed telltale biochemical signatures of fibrosis. Using a sophisticated imaging method called atomic force microscopy (AFM), the researchers found as the fibrosis worsened, they could measure a corresponding increase in an organoid’s stiffness.
Next, as highlighted in the confocal microscope image above, Takebe’s team produced organoids from iPSCs derived from children with a deadly inherited form of fatty liver disease known as Wolman disease. Babies born with this condition lack an enzyme called lysosomal acid lipase (LAL) that breaks down fats, causing them to accumulate dangerously in the liver. Similarly, the miniature liver shown here is loaded with accumulated fat lipids (blue).
That brought researchers to the next big test. Previous studies had shown that LAL deficiency in kids with Wolman disease overactivates another signaling pathway, which could be suppressed by targeting a receptor known as FXR. So, in the new study, the team applied an FXR-targeted compound called FGF19, and it prevented fat accumulation in the liver organoids derived from people with Wolman disease. The organoids treated with FGF19 not only were protected from accumulating fat, but they also survived longer and had reduced stiffening, indicating a reduction in fibrosis.
These findings suggest that FGF19 or perhaps another compound that acts similarly might hold promise for infants with Wolman disease, who often die at a very early age. That’s encouraging news because the only treatment currently available is a costly enzyme replacement therapy. The findings also demonstrate a promising approach to accelerating the search for new treatments for a variety of liver diseases.
Takebe’s team is now investigating this approach for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a common cause of liver failure and the need for a liver transplant. The hope is that studies in organoids will lead to promising new treatments for this liver condition, which affects millions of people around the world.
Ultimately, Takebe suggests it might prove useful to grow liver organoids from individual patients with fatty liver diseases, in order to identify the underlying biological causes and test the response of those patient-specific organoids to available treatments. Such evidence could one day help doctors to select the best available treatment option for each individual patient, and bring greater precision to treating liver disease.
 Modeling steatohepatitis in humans with pluripotent stem cell-derived organoids. Ouchi R, Togo S, Kimura M, Shinozawa T, Koido M, Koike H, Thompson W, Karns RA, Mayhew CN, McGrath PS, McCauley HA, Zhang RR, Lewis K, Hakozaki S, Ferguson A, Saiki N, Yoneyama Y, Takeuchi I, Mabuchi Y, Akazawa C, Yoshikawa HY, Wells JM, Takebe T. Cell Metab. 2019 May 14. pii: S1550-4131(19)30247-5.
Wolman Disease (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center/NIH)
Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease & NASH (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Stem Cell Information (NIH)
Tissue Chip for Drug Screening (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
Takebe Lab (Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center)
NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases