The novel COVID-19 outbreak has altered the world at its core, transforming the foundation of most companies as economies begin to shut down to avoid a healthcare system collapse. In the midst of this unprecedented chaos, some firms are taking steps so that their employees can continue to work remotely, while others have shifted their production lines and become deeply involved with providing medical supplies and devices to healthcare workers. Biotechnology businesses particularly are looking to innovate as they adapt to the current circumstances. With so many projects popping up on social media and local news outlets, two companies engaged in COVID-19-related projects to aid pandemic research have caught our attention this week. One of them is Cellink, the life-sciences company focusing on bioprinting applications, which has received an order for consumables for healthcare from the Swedish government. The other is Viscient Biosciences, a biotherapeutics company focused on using 3D bioprinting technology, that will turn its attention to 3D bioprinting lung tissue for infectivity research to assist global efforts to combat SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
San Diego-based biotechnology company Viscient has been working at the intersection of human 3D tissue technology and multi-omics (genomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics) analysis to discover and develop drugs across a range of therapeutic areas with a significant unmet medical need. Foreseeing a world where drug costs can be reduced due to more accurate disease modeling which can accelerate drug discovery and preclinical research, Viscient achieved a breakthrough in December: finding the world’s first drug targets discovered using 3D bioprinted disease models. Viscient has validated several such targets using its proprietary liver fibrosis tissue that replicates non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a serious form of fatty liver disease.
Now the startup, or a sister company to be funded and launched shortly using the same technology, will use 3D bioprinting technology to create lung tissue to support viral infectivity research and search for effective therapy against SARS-CoV-2. According to the company, using the paradigm developed for the liver as well as previous work in lung tissue, 3D bioprinted and other 3D tissue models made with lung cells, including a patient’s own cells, are expected to be used as a ‘clinical trial in a dish,’ helping test potential COVID-19 therapies quickly and with highly accurate biology. They also suggest that previous research has already shown that 3D human lung tissue better models viral infectivity compared to regular cell culture.
In a recently published letter, founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Viscient, Keith Murphy, proposes that “when you can remove diseased cells from the human body and reproduce that disease in a dish, you can see the true biology and quickly find a therapy that will work in clinical trials. Drugs found in animal models so often fail because of the species gap, but as we proved with our NASH liver work, important novel drug targets can be found using 3D bioprinting technology. We now are moving quickly to apply the same technology to create 3D human lung tissue to test potential COVID-19 therapies to accelerate development.”
By leveraging their expertise in complex, three-dimensional disease models comprised of human cells and complex analytical methods, the company claims it could be able to focus their efforts at this time to help in the fight against the pandemic.
With so many needs to be met at this time as countries, provoked by scarcity concerns, continue to respond to the demands of patients infected with the coronavirus and with the epidemic being far from over, it is important that companies that are able to can repurpose their production lines to join the fight.
Healthcare workers around the globe rely on personal protective equipment to shield themselves and their patients from being infected and infecting others. Yet shortages are leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients, due to limited access to supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons. So government officials around the world are prompting companies to begin producing all the required supplies. In Sweden, the public health authorities realized they needed to boost their capacity to deal with a growing number of COVID-19 patients that are likely to need special care in the coming weeks. To date, the country has over 6,000 coronavirus cases and a steeply upward growing curve as of March 10.
To deal with this troubling scenario, the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden has placed an order for consumables for healthcare for a total value of 5.2 million Swedish Krona (SEK), or USD 510.246. The order is expected to be delivered during the company’s third quarter.
Since the company has expertise and capacity to produce various gels used in the company’s bioink products, Cellink has in recent weeks been working to adjust parts of the production to help with the current situation with COVID-19, including the production of hand sanitizers and test equipment such as a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) instruments and reagents.
The qPCR instrument, which Cellink has started reselling, uses a laboratory technique of molecular biology based on the polymerase chain reaction. It monitors the amplification of a targeted DNA molecule during the PCR, that is, in real-time. The qPCR is a proven and stable technology with numerous applications. It is commonly used for both diagnostic and basic research, and uses of the technique in the industry include the quantification of microbial load in foods, the detection of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the quantification and genotyping of human viral pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2.
The unit also includes dual channels and is open source, allowing users to use any kit to run their samples. It is designed as a high-quality, low-throughput qPCR cycler. The instrument is easy to use and runs a sample in 20 to 40 minutes. According to Cellink, they want to help provide scientists with the tools they need to make a difference and therefore offer this instrument at a low-cost point to help advance research related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pandemic continues to unfold, companies keep fostering creative solutions to aid healthcare workers as they struggle to treat millions of people infected around the globe. Biotech firms, like Viscient and Cellink, are proving that during a crisis they can step up to provide what is needed now. And although envisioning a post-COVID-19 world seems difficult at this time, especially with so many companies facing challenges and risks, many continue their work to move forward an imperative desire to act now, to search for alternatives, to adapt and to continue evolving biotechnological resources for the future wellbeing of mankind.
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