Duke, UNC scientists team up to create lab-grown mini-lungs that enhance COVID-19 research

Scientists at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill have partnered to create lab-grown mini-lungs to be used to understand how the human body reacts to COVID-19.

"These mini lungs that we have now kind of gives a window of opportunity to look at how the virus is actually causing the damage. But also, we can now test some drugs that can block the infection or the damage it causes," explained Dr. Purushothama Rao Tata, an assistant professor of biology at Duke Medical School who helped lead these efforts.

Doctors have been aware that COVID-19 attacks a person's lungs, as pneumonia and acute respiratory illness is the leading cause of death for COVID-19 patients. However, these lab-grown lungs can be used to provide further insight.

Utilizing human stem cells, Dr. Tata said scientists can also observe how the virus attacks a patients lungs based on their age.

"There's some preliminary data that we have that indicates young individual cells can sustain the viral infection, they can fight much better than the older individuals," said Tata, and he added that "young" individuals referred to people younger than 20 and "older" individuals are those 50 and older.

Researchers are able to use the virus isolated from the first COVID patient in the United States as part of their work.

Tata explained the importance of using lab-grown mini-lungs vs. animal testing.

"There are so many differences between the monkeys and the humans that they don't really capitulate," Tata explained. "So, you need a human system."

Scientists had been working on creating the mini-lungs before the pandemic.

"The model system we developed is scalable. What it means is we can now do high through-put chemical schemes (and) drug schemes, which weren't really possible before because there isn't a system that mimics the lung-like tissue," Tata said. "And as we speak, we're currently doing some such things so that we can block the vital entry into these cells. But also if someone comes in with an infection already, then we want to block the propagation. So it has therapeutic elements."

To learn more about researchers' goals, click here.
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