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Understanding COVID-19 induced inflammation and lung disease

Developing an in vitro model that mimics lung anatomy and physiology in order to study the mechanisms of the SARS-CoV2 viral infection

One of the characteristics of COVID-19 is severe lung inflammation in some patients, known as the cytokine storm, which can result in acute respiratory distress. In order to understand the causes of this excessive inflammation and the possible evolution to chronic lung disease, Dr. Frauke Christ’s team at KU Leuven University in Belgium is developing an in vitro model that mimics lung anatomy and physiology allowing to follow the course of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Understanding Cellular Mechanisms

Studies by various research teams have found that when the SARS-CoV-2 virus enters the epithelial cells that line the inside of the lung, the endothelial cells that cover blood vessels stop working properly. This endothelial dysfunction is suspected of playing a major role in the morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19. Despite this, these cellular mechanisms are not well understood at this time.

Simulating Lung Function

An innovator in the field of molecular virology and gene therapy, Dr. Frauke Christ and her team plus involved contributors (KU Leuven & UZ Leuven) are developing an innovative in vitro “lung-on chip” model that closely resembles lung anatomy and physiology of the small airways. With this chip, the interactions between the endothelial cells, epithelial cells and extracellular components surrounding these structures in the human respiratory tract will be studied during a viral infection like SARS-CoV-2. 

The aim is to better understand the causes of inflammation associated with COVID-19, including risk factors such as obesitas and diabetes, providing a basis for future new treatment development.

This model could be used to study the long-term effects on the lungs of patients with severe cases of COVID-19.