26 September 2023

CSIRO unveils COVID airway cells

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Scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have found that human airway cells grown in a laboratory can reliably be used to study respiratory viruses such as COVID-19 and therefore help fast-track drugs for human clinical trials.

Research Scientist at CSIRO and lead author of the findings, Elizabeth Pharo said the airway model could potentially be used to screen up to 100 antiviral compounds within three months, and CSIRO was exploring ways to further accelerate screening including the use of robotic technology.

“Clinical trials for new therapeutics can take significant time and money to establish, only for researchers to frequently discover that the treatment doesn’t work in people,” Dr Pharo said.

“We found that our lab-grown airway cells mimic the human airway response to viruses and can be used to quickly test whether antiviral treatments might work against a virus in a real person,” she said.

“This way we can ‘fast fail’ antivirals before they get to the clinical trial stage, helping streamline the more promising ones through to human testing.”

Dr Pharo said the model could also be used to help study the characteristics of a virus and how it affected airway cells, helping reduce the need for animal testing.

“However, it cannot be used to study the more complex immune responses required to evaluate vaccine candidates,” she said.

Dr Pharo said scientists at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) were now using the model to characterise how the virus which causes COVID-19 infected and damaged healthy donor airway cells, compared to cells from donors with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or diabetes.

“It’s hoped this work will help improve our understanding of how COVID-19 may affect people with pre-existing lung conditions,” she said.

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