BU lab using microscopic ‘lungs’ to study COVID-19

Healthy cell clusters better way to find possible treatments

BOSTON — Scientists sometimes use human lung cancer cells in medical research. But there's just one problem with that, said virologist Elke Muhlberger, PhD.

“These cancer cells do not act like lung cells,” she said. “They act like cancer cells.”

For her research on Covid-19, Dr. Muhlberger, who works at Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, has the next best thing to an actual human lung – a microscopic version known as an organoid.

Organoids are derived from adult blood cells that have essentially been stripped of their identities then put through a chemical process to grow them into specific cell types.

"So they could become a liver cell," Muhlberger said. "They could become a lung cell."

And for Muhlberger, they became the specific type of lung cell commonly attacked by COVID-19.

"It's a cell type which is deep in our lung," Muhlberger said. "It's called an alveolar lung cell. People that get really sick – they have the virus in these specific cells."

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By infecting these healthy alveolar cells with COVID-19, Muhlberger and colleagues are learning how the virus kills and what treatments might offer protection. One thing the research has already uncovered is that lung cancer cells infected with COVID-19 respond differently to some drugs than healthy lung cells do.

Muhlberger normally works on such lethal viruses as Ebola. She suggested there is a bright side and a dark side to COVID-19.

"Fortunately it is less pathogenic than many of these viruses that spill over from animals to humans," she said. "The problem with this virus is our immune system is not adapted to these viruses, so we have not co-evolved with this virus. And this is one of the reasons we have such a hard time coping with infection."

Muhlberger anticipates that the COVID-19 research won’t stop at clusters of lung cells either because, unfortunately, the virus doesn’t stop at the respiratory system on its rampage through some bodies.

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RESOURCES:

- Massachusetts Coronavirus Information

- Boston Coronavirus Information

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