Using Organs-on-Chips to Combat COVID-19

Hand Chip

The coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on individuals around the world, leading to over 100,000 deaths globally and threatening to take the lives of many more people. But researchers at the Wyss Institute are fighting back using human-relevant, animal-free alternatives to study the virus—with organ-on-a-chip technology. 

A recent article in The Harvard Crimson describes efforts coming out of the lab of Dr. Don Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute in Boston. Notably, Dr. Ingber was also the mentor of former NAVS/IFER fellowship recipient Bryan Hassell

His team is taking a multi-pronged approach to studying COVID-19 infections using organ-on-a-chip devices. As you may recall, organs-on-chips are microfluidic cell culture devices with channels lined by living cells. They are able to simulate tissue and organ-level functionality. 

Ingber noted, “We were funded by DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] under a program that was called PREPARE [Pre-emptive Expression of Protective Alleles and Response Elements] that was really focused on being prepared to deal with viral pandemics.” 

Dr. Ingber’s lab had previously used their organ-on-a-chip devices to study human responses to different strains of influenza, which helped prepare them for the work that they are currently doing to study coronavirus. “When the COVID-19 crisis emerged in January, my team very quickly pivoted and engineered a pseudo-type virus,” Ingber said. 

Members of his team engineered a pseudo-virus that is safe to use in the lab. It expresses the spike protein that helps it enter cells. Using this virus, the researchers showed that they could successfully infect lung-on-a-chip devices lined with human lung cells. This is the model that had been used previously to study influenza virus infections and was shown to mimic response to that type of infection with a high level of accuracy. 

Other lab members are using computer algorithms to help identify existing FDA-approved drugs or new therapies to test in the organ-on-a-chip devices to determine if the drugs, or drug combinations, might serve as effective treatments. They are looking not only at whether the drugs may be effective in treating patients infected with COVID-19, but also if they could be used as protective therapies for high-risk individuals, including those on the front lines who are exposed to the virus. 

We commend these researchers for choosing to work with human-relevant, animal-free models to help combat the coronavirus and will keep you posted on the progress that they are making in their efforts. 

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Boettner, B. “The Wyss Institute’s response to COVID-19: Beating back the coronavirus,” The Wyss Institute Website, April 6, 2020. 

Levein, S. and Li, Austin. “Wyss and Broad Institute Scientists Respond to COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Harvard Crimson. April 1, 2020.