Australian scientists have found that human airway cells grown in a laboratory can reliably be used to study respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.
This could help minimise animal testing and fast-track drug development, they say, by allowing researchers to “fast fail” some antivirals before they get to the clinical trial stage.
Elizabeth Pharo and colleagues from national science agency CSIRO have shown that lab-grown cells from the upper layer of the airway to the lungs – the bronchial epithelium – reliably mimic a live person’s airway’s response to viruses.
They suggest their model could be used to screen up to 100 antiviral compounds within three months, and the CSIRO says it is exploring ways to further accelerate screening, including the use of robotic technology.
The model could also be used to help study the characteristics of a virus and how it affects airway cells, helping reduce the need for animal testing. However, it cannot be used to study the more complex immune responses required to evaluate vaccine candidates.
The research involved growing donated human airway epithelial cells on porous membranes exposed to air.
Pharo and colleagues cultured the cells as they developed into the cell types found in human airways. These included goblet and club cells that secrete mucus to absorb inhaled foreign matter, and ciliated cells with hair-like structures that beat in coordinated waves to move particles and microbes away from the lungs.
“For many respiratory diseases, such as COVID-19, the airways act as the first responders to inhaled pathogens,” Pharo says.
“When we infected our airway epithelial cultures with the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus, the cells had the same innate immune response as in a live person’s airway, with the production of cytokines and chemokines.”
The researchers are now using this model to characterise how the virus that causes COVID-19 infects and damages healthy donor airway cells, compared to cells from donors with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or diabetes.
The findings are published in the journal Viruses.
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