Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Dutch doctoral researcher Joep Beumer had used miniature lab-grown organs to study the human intestine as part of his PhD thesis. When lockdown hit, however, he was forced to delay his plans for graduation. Overwhelmed by a sense of boredom after the closure of his lab at the Hubrecht Institute, in the Netherlands, he began reading literature related to COVID-19.
"By February , there were already reports on coronavirus symptoms in the intestinal tract," Beumer says, adding that this piqued his interest. He wondered if he could use his miniature models – called organoids -- to study how the coronavirus infects the intestines.
But he wasn't the only one to follow this train of thought. In the year since the pandemic began, many researchers have been using organoids to study how the coronavirus infects human cells, and find potential treatments. Beumer's pivot represents a remarkable and fast-emerging paradigm shift in how drugs and diseases will be studied in the coming decades. With future pandemics likely to be more frequent and deadlier, such a shift is necessary to reduce the average clinical development time of 5.9 years for antiviral agents.
Part of that shift means developing models that replicate human biology in the lab. Animal models, which are the current standard in biomedical research, fail to do so—96% of drugs that pass animal testing, for example, fail to make it to market. Injecting potentially toxic drugs into living creatures, before eventually slaughtering them, also raises ethical concerns for some. Organoids, on the other hand, respond to infectious diseases, or potential treatments, in a way that is relevant to humans, in addition to being slaughter-free.
Human intestinal organoids infected with SARS-CoV-2 (white).
Credit: Joep Beumer/Clevers group/Hubrecht Institute
Urgency Sparked Momentum
Though brain organoids were previously used to study the Zika virus during the 2015-16 epidemic, it wasn't until COVID-19 that the field really started to change. "The organoid field has advanced a lot in the last year. The speed at which it happened is crazy," says Shuibing Chen, an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. She adds that many federal and private funding agencies have now seen the benefits of organoids, and are starting to appreciate their potential in the biomedical field.
Last summer, the Organo-Strat (OS) network—a German network that uses human organoid models to study COVID-19's effects—received 3.2 million euros in funding from the German government. "When the pandemic started, we became aware that we didn't have the right models to immediately investigate the effects of the virus," says Andreas Hocke, professor of infectious diseases at the Charité Universitätsmedizin in Berlin, Germany, and coordinator of the OS network. Hocke explained that while the World Health Organization's animal models showed an "overlap of symptoms'' with humans, there was "no clear reflection" of the same disease.
"The network functions as a way of connecting organoid experts with infectious disease experts across Germany," Hocke continues. "Having organoid models on demand means we can understand how a virus infects human cells from the first moment it's isolated." Overall, OS aims to create infrastructure that could be applied to future pandemics. There are 28 sub-projects involved in the network, covering a wide assortment of individual organoids.
Cost, however, remains an obstacle to scaling up, says Chen. She says there is also a limit to what we can learn from organoids, given that they only represent a single organ. "We can add drugs to organoids to see how the cells respond, but these tests don't tell us anything about drug metabolism, for example," she explains.
A Related "Leaps" in Progress
One way to solve this issue is to use an organ-on-a-chip system. These are miniature chips containing a variety of human cells, as well as small channels along which functions like blood or air flow can be recreated. This allows scientists to perform more complex experiments, like studying drug metabolism, while producing results that are relevant to humans.
An organ-on-a-chip system.
Credit: Fraunhofer IGB
Such systems are also able to elicit an immune response. The FDA has even entered into an agreement with Wyss Institute spinoff Emulate to use their lung-on-a-chip system to test COVID-19 vaccines. Representing multiple organs in one system is also possible. Berlin-based TissUse are aiming to make a so-called 'human on a chip' system commercially available. But TissUse senior scientist Ilka Maschmeyer warns that there is a limit to how far the technology can go. "The system will not think or feel, so it wouldn't be possible to test for illnesses affecting these abilities," she says.
Some challenges also remain in the usability of organs-on-a-chip. "Specialized training is required to use them as they are so complex," says Peter Loskill, assistant professor and head of the organ-on-a-chip group at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Hocke agrees with this. "Cell culture scientists would easily understand how to use organoids in a lab, but when using a chip, you need additional biotechnology knowledge," he says.
One major advantage of both technologies is the possibility of personalized medicine: Cells can be taken from a patient and put onto a chip, for example, to test their individual response to a treatment. Loskill also says there are other uses outside of the biomedical field, such as cosmetic and chemical testing.
"Although these technologies offer a lot of possibilities, they need time to develop," Loskill continues. He stresses, however, that it's not just the technology that needs to change. "There's a lot of conservative thinking in biomedical research that says this is how we've always done things. To really study human biology means approaching research questions in a completely new way."
Even so, he thinks that the pandemic marked a shift in people's thinking—no one cared how the results were found, as long as it was done quickly. But Loskill adds that it's important to balance promise, potential, and expectations when it comes to these new models. "Maybe in 15 years' time we will have a limited number of animal models in comparison to now, but the timescale depends on many factors," he says.
Beumer, now a post-doc, was eventually allowed to return to the lab to develop his coronavirus model, and found working on it to be an eye-opening experience. He saw first-hand how his research could have an impact on something that was affecting the entire human race, as well as the pressure that comes with studying potential treatments. Though he doesn't see a future for himself in infectious diseases, he hopes to stick with organoids. "I've now gotten really excited about the prospect of using organoids for drug discovery," he says.
The coronavirus pandemic has slowed society down in many respects, but it has flung biomedical research into the future—from mRNA vaccines to healthcare models based on human biology. It may be difficult to fully eradicate animal models, but over the coming years, organoids and organs-on-a-chip may become the standard for the sake of efficacy -- and ethics.
Jack McGovan is a freelance science writer based in Berlin. His main interests center around sustainability, food, and the multitude of ways in which the human world intersects with animal life. Find him on Twitter @jack_mcgovan."
I am a stem cell scientist. In my day job I work on developing ways to use stem cells to treat neurological disease – human disease. This is the story about how I became part of a group dedicated to rescuing the northern white rhinoceros from extinction.
The earth is now in an era that is called the "sixth mass extinction." The first extinction, 400 million years ago, put an end to 86 percent of the existing species, including most of the trilobites. When the earth grew hotter, dustier, or darker, it lost fish, amphibians, reptiles, plants, dinosaurs, mammals and birds. Each extinction event wiped out 80 to 90 percent of the life on the planet at the time. The first 5 mass extinctions were caused by natural disasters: volcanoes, fires, a meteor. But humans can take credit for the 6th.
Because of human activities that destroy habitats, creatures are now becoming extinct at a rate that is higher than any previously experienced. Some animals, like the giant panda and the California condor, have been pulled back from the brink of extinction by conserving their habitats, breeding in captivity, and educating the public about their plight.
But not the northern white rhino. This gentle giant is a vegetarian that can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. The rhino's weakness is its horn, which has become a valuable commodity because of the mistaken idea that it grants power and has medicinal value. Horns are not medicine; the horns are made of keratin, the same protein that is in fingernails. But as recently as 2017 more than 1,000 rhinos were slaughtered each year to harvest their horns.
All 6 rhino species are endangered. But the northern white has been devastated. Only two members of this species are alive now: Najin, age 32, and her daughter Fatu, 21, live in a protected park in Kenya. They are social animals and would prefer the company of other rhinos of their kind; but they can't know that they are the last two survivors of their entire species. No males exist anymore. The last male, Sudan, died in 2018 at age 45.
We are celebrating a huge milestone in the efforts to use stem cells to rescue the rhino.
I became involved in the rhino rescue project on a sunny day in February, 2008 at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido, about 30 miles north of my lab in La Jolla. My lab had relocated a couple of months earlier to Scripps Research Institute to start the Center for Regenerative Medicine for human stem cell research. To thank my staff for their hard work, I wanted to arrange a special treat. I contacted my friend Oliver Ryder, who is director of the Institute for Conservation Research at the zoo, to see if I could take them on a safari, a tour in a truck through the savanna habitat at the park.
This was the first of the "stem cell safaris" that the lab would enjoy over the next few years. On the safari we saw elands and cape buffalo, and fed giraffes and rhinos. And we talked about stem cells; in particular, we discussed a surprising technological breakthrough recently reported by the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka that enabled conversion of ordinary skin cells into pluripotent stem cells.
Pluripotent stem cells can develop into virtually any cell type in the body. They exist when we are very young embryos; five days after we were just fertilized eggs, we became blastocysts, invisible tiny balls of a few hundred cells packed with the power to develop into an entire human being. Long before we are born, these cells of vast potential transform into highly specialized cells that generate our brains, our hearts, and everything else.
Human pluripotent stem cells from blastocysts can be cultured in the lab, and are called embryonic stem cells. But thanks to Dr. Yamanaka, anyone can have their skin cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells, just like the ones we had when we were embryos. Dr. Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for these cells, called "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPSCs) several years later.
On our safari we realized that if we could make these reprogrammed stem cells from human skin cells, why couldn't we make them from animals' cells? How about endangered animals? Could such stem cells be made from animals whose skin cells had been being preserved since the 1970s in the San Diego Zoo's Frozen Zoo®? Our safari leader, Oliver Ryder, was the curator of the Frozen Zoo and knew what animal cells were stored in its giant liquid nitrogen tanks at −196°C (-320° F). The Frozen Zoo was established by Dr. Kurt Benirschke in 1975 in the hope that someday the collection would aid in rescue of animals that were on the brink of extinction. The frozen collection reached 10,000 cell lines this year.
We returned to the lab after the safari, and I asked my scientists if any of them would like to take on the challenge of making reprogrammed stem cells from endangered species. My new postdoctoral fellow, Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun, raised her hand. Inbar had arrived only a few weeks earlier from Israel, and she was excited about doing something that had never been done before. Oliver picked the animals we would use. He chose his favorite animal, the critically endangered northern white rhinoceros, and the drill, which is an endangered primate related to the mandrill monkey,
When Inbar started work on reprogramming cells from the Frozen Zoo, there were 8 living northern rhinoceros around the world: Nola, Angalifu, Nesari, Nabire, Suni, Sudan, Najin, and Fatu. We chose to reprogram Fatu, the youngest of the remaining animals.
Through sheer determination and trial and error, Inbar got the reprogramming technique to work, and in 2011 we published the first report of iPSCs from endangered species in the scientific journal Nature Methods. The cover of the journal featured a drawing of an ark packed with animals that might someday be rescued through iPSC technology. By 2011, one of the 8 rhinos, Nesari, had died.
This kernel of hope for using iPSCs to rescue rhinos grew over the next 10 years. The zoo built the Rhino Rescue Center, and brought in 6 females of the closely related species, the southern white rhinoceros, from Africa. Southern white rhino populations are on the rise, and it appears that this species will survive, at least in captivity. The females are destined to be surrogate mothers for embryos made from northern white rhino cells, when eventually we hope to generate sperm and eggs from the reprogrammed stem cells, and fertilize the eggs in vitro, much the same as human IVF.
The author, Jeanne Loring, at the Rhino Rescue Center with one of the southern white rhino surrogates.
As this project has progressed, we've been saddened by the loss of all but the last two remaining members of the species. Nola, the last northern white rhino in the U.S., who was at the San Diego Zoo, died in 2015.
But we are celebrating a huge milestone in the efforts to use stem cells to rescue the rhino. Just over a month ago, we reported that by reprogramming cells preserved in the Frozen Zoo, we produced iPSCs from stored cells of 9 northern white rhinos: Fatu, Najin, Nola, Suni, Nadi, Dinka, Nasima, Saut, and Angalifu. We also reprogrammed cells from two of the southern white females, Amani and Wallis.
We don't know when it will be possible to make a northern white rhino embryo; we have to figure out how to use methods already developed for laboratory mice to generate sperm and eggs from these cells. The male rhino Angalifu died in 2014, but ever since I saw beating heart cells derived from his very own cells in a culture dish, I've felt hope that he will one day have children who will seed a thriving new herd of northern white rhinos.
Under the electronic microscope, the Ebola particles looked like tiny round bubbles floating inside human cells. Except these Ebola particles couldn't get free from their confinement.
They were trapped inside their bubbles, unable to release their RNA into the human cells to start replicating. These cells stopped the Ebola infection. And they did it on their own, without any medications, albeit in a petri dish of immunologist Adam Lacy-Hulbert. He studies how cells fight infections at the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle, Washington.
These weren't just any ordinary human cells. They had a specific gene turned on—namely CD74, which typically wouldn't be on. Lacy-Hulbert's team was experimenting with turning various genes on and off to see what made cells fight viral infections better. One particular form of the CD74 gene did the trick. Normally, the Ebola particles would use the cells' own proteases—enzymes that are often called "molecular scissors" because they slice proteins—to cut the bubbles open. But CD74 produced a protein that blocked the scissors from cutting the bubbles, leaving Ebola trapped.
"When that gene turns on, it makes the protein that interferes with Ebola replication," Lacy-Hulbert says. "The protein binds to those molecular scissors and stops them from working." Even better, the protein interfered with coronaviruses too, including SARS-CoV-2, as the team published in the journal Science.
This begs the question: If one can turn on cells' viral resistance in a lab, can this be done in a human body so we that we can better fight Ebola, coronaviruses and other viral scourges?
Recent research indeed shows that our ability to fight viral infections is written in our genes. Genetic variability is at least one reason why some coronavirus-infected people don't develop symptoms while others stay on ventilators for weeks—often due to the aberrant response of their immune system, which went on overdrive to kill the pathogen. But if cells activate certain genes early in the infection, they might successfully stop viruses from replicating before the immune system spirals out of control.
"If my father who is 70 years old tests positive, I would recommend he takes interferon as early as possible."
When we talk about fighting infections, we tend to think in terms of highly specialized immune system cells—B-cells that release antibodies and T-cells that stimulate inflammatory responses, says Lacy-Hulbert. But all other cells in the body have the ability to fight infections too via different means. When cells detect the presence of a pathogen, they release interferons—small protein molecules named so because they set off a genetic chain reaction that interferes with viral replication. These molecules work as alarm signals to other cells around them. The neighboring cells transduce these signals inside themselves and turn on genes responsible for cellular defenses.
"There are at least 300 to 400 genes that are stimulated by type I interferons," says professor Jean-Laurent Casanova at Rockefeller University.
Scientists don't yet know exactly what all of these genes do, but they change the molecular behavior of the cells. "The cells go into a dramatic change and start producing hundreds of proteins that interfere with viral replication on the inside," explains Qian Zhang, a researcher at Casanova's lab. "Some block the proteins the virus needs and some physically tether the virus."
Some cells produce only small amount of interferon, enough to alert their neighbors. Others, such microphages and monocytes, whose jobs are to detect foreign invaders, produce a lot, injecting interferons into the blood to sound the alarm throughout the body. "They are professional cells so their jobs [are] to detect a viral or bacterial infection," Zhang explains.
People with impaired interferon responses are more vulnerable to infections, including influenza and coronaviruses. In two recent studies published in the journal Science, Casanova, Zhang and their colleagues found that patients who lacked a certain type of interferon had more severe Covid-19 symptoms and some died from it. The team ran a genetic comparison of blood samples from patients hospitalized with severe coronavirus cases against those with the asymptomatic infections.
They found that people with severe disease had rare variants in the 13 genes responsible for interferon production. More than three percent of them had a genetic mutation resulting in non-functioning genes. And over ten percent had an autoimmune condition, in which misguided antibodies neutralized their interferons, dampening their bodies' defenses—and these patients were predominantly men. These discoveries help explain why some young and seemingly healthy individuals require life support, while others have mild symptoms or none. The findings also offer ways of stimulating cellular resistance.
A New Frontier in the Making
The idea of making human cells genetically resistant to infections—and possibly other stressors like cancer or aging—has been considered before. It is the concept behind the Genome Project-write or GP-write project, which aims to create "ultra-safe" versions of human cells that resist a variety of pathogens by way of "recoding" or rewriting the cells' genes.
To build proteins, cells use combinations of three DNA bases called codons to represent amino acids—the proteins' building blocks. But biologists find that many of the codons are redundant so if they were removed from all genes, the human cells would still make all their proteins. However, the viruses, whose genes would still include these eliminated redundant codons, would no longer successfully be able to replicate inside human cells.
In 2016, the GP-Write team successfully reduced the number of Escherichia coli's codons from 64 to 57. Recoding genes in all human cells would be harder, but some recoded cells may be transplanted into the body, says Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church, the GP-Write core founding member.
"You can recode a subset of the body, such as all of your blood," he says. "You can also grow an organ inside a recoded pig and transplant it."
Church adds that these methods are still in stages that are too early to help us with this pandemic.
LeapsMag exclusively interviewed Church in 2019 about his latest progress with DNA recoding:
The Push for Clinical Trials
In the meantime, interferons may prove an easier medicine. Lacy-Hulbert thinks that interferon gamma might play a role in activating the CD74 gene, which gums up the molecular scissors. There also may be other ways to activate that gene. "So we are now thinking, can we develop a drug that mimics that actual activity?" he says.
Some interferons are already manufactured and used for treating certain diseases, including multiple sclerosis. Theoretically, nothing prevents doctors from prescribing interferons to Covid patients, but it must be done in the early stages of infection—to stimulate genes that trigger cellular defenses before the virus invades too many cells and before the immune systems mobilizes its big guns.
"If my father who is 70 years old tests positive, I would recommend he takes interferon as early as possible," says Zhang. But to make it a mainstream practice, doctors need clear prescription guidelines. "What would really help doctors make these decisions is clinical trials," says Casanova, so that such guidelines can be established. "We are now starting to push for clinical trials," he adds.