Cost-effective 3D lung tissue spheroid as a model for SARS-CoV-2 infection and drug screening

Artif Organs. 2024 Feb 22. doi: 10.1111/aor.14729. Online ahead of print.


Background: The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has spurred an unparalleled scientific endeavor to elucidate the virus' structure, infection mechanisms, and pathogenesis. Two-dimensional culture systems have been instrumental in shedding light on numerous aspects of COVID-19. However, these in vitro systems lack the physiological complexity to comprehend the infection process and explore treatment options. Three-dimensional (3D) models have been proposed to fill the gap between 2D cultures and in vivo studies. Specifically, spheroids, composed of lung cell types, have been suggested for studying SARS-CoV-2 infection and serving as a drug screening platform.

Methods: 3D lung spheroids were prepared by coculturing human alveolar or bronchial epithelial cells with human lung stromal cells. The morphology, size, and ultrastructure of spheroids before and after SARS-CoV-2 infection were analyzed using optical and electron microscopy. Immunohistochemistry was used to detect spike protein and, thus, the virus presence in the spheroids. Multiplex analysis elucidated the cytokine release after virus infection.

Results: The spheroids were stable and kept their size and morphology after SARS-CoV-2 infection despite the presence of multivesicular bodies, endoplasmic reticulum rearrangement, tubular compartment-enclosed vesicles, and the accumulation of viral particles. The spheroid responded to the infection releasing IL-6 and IL-8 cytokines.

Conclusion: This study demonstrates that coculture spheroids of epithelial and stromal cells can serve as a cost-effective infection model for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We suggest using this 3D spheroid as a drug screening platform to explore new treatments related to the cytokines released during virus infection, especially for long COVID treatment.

Keywords: 3D in vitro model; COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; drug screening; infection model; spheroids.