There are very few certainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic that began earlier this year. Despite multiple estimates, no one can really pin a date to the pandemic’s end, or how many people will become infected with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19. However, ever since the global impact of the respiratory illness put a third of the global population on lockdown, we have been following news from the biotechnology community, which has unquestionably stepped up their work. New developments, research teams, and solidarity towards health workers have become a notorious part of the new commitment of many companies, research institutions, and universities. In line with this attitude, Brazilian-based biotechnology startup TissueLabs has created a new platform for the in vitro study of SARS-CoV-2 in the lung epithelium.
An important regulator and effector tissue, lung epithelium has a crucial role as host defense against microbes that pass through the glottis and reach the conducting airways and gas-exchange parenchyma. In the past weeks, many researchers and companies have begun testing whether human lung epithelium models could be used as a platform for investigating SARS-CoV-2 infection, even using them to evaluate potential antiviral drugs.
Designed for fabricating 3D epithelial barriers in vitro, MatriWell is the latest addition to TissueLabs portfolio of patented platforms for creating organs and tissues in the lab.
“Launching MatriWell was our small contribution during this time of great change. It was developed in record time by our amazing scientific team and conceived to address one of the major drawbacks of in vitro studies: representativeness. It was designed for all the researchers working to find a drug or vaccine against this newly discovered coronavirus disease because we consider that researchers are the true heroes of our time,” explained TissueLabs founder and CEO, Gabriel Liguori, to 3DPrint.com.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has forced most societies into indefinite quarantines; however, a recent statement issued by TissueLabs, asks the question of whether this will be enough to eradicate the virus that causes the disease, suggesting that we must be prepared for new spreading waves of COVID-19. Moreover, they highlight the urgent need for the scientific community to rapidly expand its knowledge about the new coronavirus and potential therapeutic targets, despite ongoing studies on the efficacy of existing drugs that are being tested in sick patients.
Liguori and his team consider that the current platforms available for in vitro investigation of the Coronavirus in the pulmonary epithelium are not representative of the tissue found in the human lung. Claiming that, in general, two-dimensional cultures, traditionally used in biomedical research, subject cells to a microenvironment that is very distinct from that found in the body. Ultimately, leading to hundreds of new compounds being subjected to pre-clinical and clinical tests with a low success rate, wasting resources that could have been otherwise utilized for the development of compounds with a higher chance of success.
To overcome this troubling scenario, earlier this month, TissueLabs switched the attention of their entire team to develop, urgently, a platform for in vitro study of SARS-CoV-2 in the lung epithelium, which is affected during the disease process.
The result was MatriWell, a cell insert containing a hydrogel with the extracellular matrix proteins of the tissue. In this case, the lung tissue. The researchers using it would be able to personalize the type and origin of the cells to be used with the platform. This means that, for instance, it would be possible to use cells from patients with other comorbidities, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to create personalized 3D tissues.
“When cells are cultured on top of the hydrogel, they are exposed to an air interface on top and a near-liquid interface on the bottom. We call that an air-gel interface. So, the cells are cultured exactly as you would find them in the lungs, meaning that one side is turned to the airflow and the other side turned to the supporting tissue, mostly extracellular matrix,” explained Liguori.
The cell insert for MatriWell was made using biocompatible resin with industrial 3D printers that TissueLabs has at the company headquarters in São Paulo. Liguori said that the hydrogel is deposited after 3D printing of the cell insert body,
What is so great about this new undertaking is that TissueLabs plans to distribute MatriWell free of charge to researchers studying the novel Coronavirus. To request it, they must complete the application form available on the following link: https://www.tissuelabs.com/covid-19. Once the startup assists all of the researchers working on SARS-CoV-2, they plan to address the needs of other researchers that are studying other diseases and who might also need access to the MatriWell platform. In this case, they will need to fill in the “project field” in the form with the word “quote” and TissueLabs will get back to them as soon as possible.
That means that once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Liguori’s plan is to release MatriWell for other tissues as well, including skin, stomach, intestine, and colon – which will likely be the upcoming target. However, the platform is intended for all epithelial tissues.
About this unexpected scenario, Liguori described that in spite of the unfortunate situation that has the entire world fully engaged with everyday news about COVID-19, “this project was a great experience for us, especially because we were able to make it happen in only three weeks.” He also recalled that “it would have gone faster if we didn’t have to patent it because the patenting process alone took seven days.”
The Brazilian Health Ministry recently reported the death toll to be over 5,000. That means that the country’s total number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths has surpassed the death toll figure the World Health Organization is reporting for China. A tough scenario for the Latin American country, which up to now, has the highest number of confirmed cases. Like almost every society, Brazil has a shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, which is why researchers, universities, and entrepreneurs have begun 3D printing the material for hospitals and other key workers that require them.
In fact, Liguori indicated that “we have seen in this last month many 3D printing companies, like 3D Criar, utilize all their 3D printing machines to make several products required by health workers, such as masks, ventilator valves, face shields, and more.” However, he also recalled that “unfortunately Brazil does not have many biotech companies,” so TissueLabs’ initiative is by far very helpful to all Brazilian researchers working towards a common world cause and helping their country endure the disease.
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