An organoid model to assay the role of CFTR in the human epididymis epithelium

Cell Tissue Res. 2020 Aug;381(2):327-336. doi: 10.1007/s00441-020-03208-7. Epub 2020 May 6.


Organoid cultures derived from primary human tissues facilitate the study of disease processes and the development of new therapeutics. Most men with cystic fibrosis (CF) are infertile due to defects in the epididymis and vas deferens; however, the causative mechanisms are still unclear. We used human epididymis epithelial cell (HEE) organoids and polarized HEE cell cultures to assay the CF transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) in the human epididymis. 3D HEE organoids and polarized 2D HEE cell cultures on membrane inserts were established from human caput epididymis. Single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) was performed to map cell type-specific gene expression in the organoids. Using forskolin (FSK) to activate CFTR and inhibitor CFTRinh172 to block its activity, we assessed how CFTR contributes to organoid swelling and epithelial barrier function. The scRNA-seq data showed key caput epididymis cell types present in HEE organoid cultures. FSK at 10 μM induced HEE organoid swelling by 20% at 16 h, while 5 and 10 μM CFTRinh172 treatment significantly reduced HEE organoid size. In transepithelial resistance (TER) measurements, FSK reduced TER, while inhibition of CFTR increased TER; also, depletion of CFTR with specific siRNAs significantly increased TER. FSK treatment significantly increased the flux of 4-kDa but not 70-kDa dextran, suggesting activation of CFTR mainly enhances transcellular diffusion. We have demonstrated that CFTR contributes to the maintenance of HEE cell TER and that cultured HEE organoids are a useful model to investigate human epididymis function. These results facilitate progress in elucidating how CFTR-dependent cellular processes impair fertility in CF.

Keywords: Epididymis; Forskolin-induced swelling; Male reproductive tract; Organoids; Single-cell RNA sequencing.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cystic Fibrosis / pathology*
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator / physiology*
  • Epididymis / pathology*
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology*
  • Epithelium
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Organoids / pathology*
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Young Adult


  • CFTR protein, human
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator