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Infectious Diseases

Updated 01 July 2020

Lab-grown mini-organs reveal the damage inflicted by Covid-19

As part of global studies on the coronavirus, organoids help scientists understand the effects of the virus and how to treat them.

  • Organoids are paving the way to understanding the effects of Covid-19 on the human body

  • These are lab-grown mini-organs like kidneys, lungs, livers and brains

  • This method is considered more ethical than testing on animals, but has its limitations 


Scientists are turning to lab-grown, mini-human organs to help them investigate how Covid-19 is ravaging their systems.

And no, this isn’t like the human cloning you see in movies like The Island.

They are grown from human embryonic stem cells, programmed to organise themselves into whichever organ the scientist needs to experiment with. 

They resemble tiny grey blobs, but are an important tool in replicating the pathology of viruses like Covid-19 in order to understand and discover treatments to help fight them. 

Three methods of investigation

Various coronavirus studies have been done on lung, kidney, liver and cardiovascular system organoids. 

According to a review published in Cell Press, the use of organoids is one of three methods of investigating the effects of a disease on the human body in a lab. The others are using human airway epithelial cells and animal testing. 

See how they grow brain organoids below:

Some of the research so far has found invaluable data on Covid-19. Research published in Science on small intestinal organoids found that not only was it a target for the virus, it also was a hot spot for its replication.

Another study from China published in bioRxiv also analysed how receptive lung organoids are to the virus, and tested drugs like imatinib and mycophenolic acid to see if it inhibited the virus’s effects. They concluded that organoids would be a powerful tool in faster screening of more treatments not yet ready for human trials.

While organoids better represent human cells, animal testing is sometimes considered more effective as it shows the effect of a virus and treatment across the whole biological system. 

Organoids only show how a single organ is affected, and the human body is a system with many parts interacting with each other and not in isolation. 

Animals used in Covid-19 studies include transgenic mice, Syrian hamsters, cats, ferrets and macaques. The virus, however, does not seem to replicate itself in ducks, pigs and chickens. 

By-product of immune response

Experts, however, told Nature that organoids are much cheaper, produce faster results, and have far fewer ethical complications than testing on animals. 

But they also note that it’s too early to tell if the findings from organoid studies are yet relevant enough, as there’s a need for more complex organoids for better results. 

It would also be difficult to ascertain whether Covid-19 is causing the damage in these organs, or if the damage is a byproduct of the body’s immune response, like the deadly cytokine storm.

Image credit: Pixabay