While it may have felt like an eternity, effective treatments for COVID-19 have been discovered quite quickly with the help of miniature lab-grown organs called organoids.
What Are Organoids?
These tiny lab-grown organs are less than a centimeter wide and typically grown in plastic Petri dishes. As an article in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology explains, organoids come from stem cells, which are commonly derived from adult skin cells that have been treated so that they revert to an undifferentiated state. It’s like erasing a computer hard drive and starting over. When these stem cells are treated with just the right combination of molecules in just the right order, they will divide to produce the different cell types of the appropriate organ system. These cells will self-organize into a tiny 3D structure with roughly the appropriate structure—with certain cells on the outside, other cells on the inside, some cells forming tubes, etc. In this way, scientists can produce tiny models of lungs, stomachs, intestines, brains, hearts, kidneys, and more.
Moreover, these tiny organs can be produced with specific variations in the DNA sequence that might make someone more or less susceptible to a disease such as COVID-19. These organoids can be used to identify effective viral infection treatments before they are given to humans.
Organoids and the Fight Against COVID-19
The first COVID-19 patients provided an initial understanding of how COVID-19 affects the human body and produces symptoms. Infection in the lungs can cause pneumonia and acute respiratory distress. Infection in the gastrointestinal system can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. As COVID-19 became a global pandemic, an unfortunate deluge of patients soon revealed less-common effects on the brain, heart, kidney and other organ systems.
An army of medical professionals on the front lines were doing everything they could to treat the patients in front of them, trying not to become patients themselves, and reporting what they were learning about the disease. Meanwhile, an army of scientists were working in the lab to understand how the COVID-19 virus binds specific proteins and infects specific cells and testing which viral infection treatments might be effective. While patient samples provided some information, laboratory experiments with organoids were essential for accelerating our collective understanding of which small molecules, antibodies and vaccines were effective against COVID-19, as an article in Nature Methods explains.
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, according to the CDC. On May 1, 2020, the antiviral drug Veklury (remdesivir) was approved as a COVID-19 treatment by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration through an Emergency Use Authorization, and then fully approved on October 22, 2020, for patients 12 and older. This rapid approval would likely not have been possible without the use of organoids in the earliest studies.
Brain organoids have played an essential role in understanding how the COVID-19 virus infects and affects the brain. This has led to the discovery that infection of brain organoids can be prevented by antibodies that bind a protein called ACE2, or by administering spinal fluid from someone with an active COVID-19 infection. The ACE2 protein was also found to be associated with COVID-19 infection in kidney and liver organoids. By using liver organoids generated from individuals with a specific liver condition (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis), it was discovered these individuals are much more likely to have their liver cells infected by the COVID-19 virus. While preventing COVID-19 infection in miniature lab-grown brains or other organoids isn’t the same as effectively preventing or treating infection in an actual human, it’s certainly a small step that will help us find our way to that larger goal.
Organoids earned their stripes during the COVID-19 pandemic and will be on the front lines of medical treatment research for years to come.
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