Scientists develop first human stem cell-based model to understand progression of viral infections like COVID-19

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Despite all efforts, scientists have not yet been able to completely understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This new coronavirus has affected almost the entire world, resulting in more than a million deaths. But it is not only SARS-CoV-2; most viral infections do not have a vaccine or treatment yet. Scientists do not know everything about how some viruses work still.

In order to study viral infections more precisely, Professor Guiscard Seebohm, along with his team at the Institute for the Genetics of Heart Diseases of Münster University, developed a viral expression model that can help in analysing the mode of action of various viruses.

The study is published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, released by Nature Research.

Similarities between SARS-CoV-2 and Coxsackievirus

Coxsackieviruses are RNA viruses that live inside the gut and cause hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD). However, they can also affect the eyes, muscles, throat, lungs and heart.

A subtype of coxsackievirus B called CVB3 (Coxsackievirus B3), though not as popular as SARS-CoV-2, is transmitted the same way as the COVID-19 causing virus.

The symptoms and recovery time of CVB3, however, are similar to the flu. Generally, the virus does not lead to any long-term impairment.

But the researchers suggest that any viral disease can lead to chronic infection and slowly damage the internal organs. It has been noticed that some patients with CVB3 develop inflammation of the heart muscle or type 1 diabetes after months or even years after the acute infection.

Along with this, the viral genome has been found in the affected tissues. However, not many studies have yet been done to understand the reason behind chronic infection and how an acute CVB3 infection progresses.

The first human stem cell-based viral model 

As per the latest study, scientists from the Institute for the Genetics of Heart Diseases of Münster University have developed the first versatile human iPSC-based (induced pluripotent stem cell) model which can help in analysing a number of viral infections.

Human-induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) based models are used in laboratories to study the mechanism of a disease on a cellular level. This model helps in screening potential vaccines or drugs and can also help in determining their side effects.

The model analysed the effect of CVB3 on heart muscle cells, which were derived from the stem cells. Human stem cells have the ability to convert into any kind of human tissue in the laboratory, thus allowing scientists to investigate the mechanism of the virus on different body tissues.

The aim of the model was to be able to control the action of the virus on the heart tissues. During the study, the scientists were able to find a stable integration of a non-infectious variant of CVB3 virus inside the genetic material of human stem cells.

What was different in this viral model?

Unlike other systems, the scientists could completely control this model. They were able to control the expression of CVB3, time-wise, in both stem cells and heart muscle cells, reduce or increase the quantity of viral proteins and change the localisation of these proteins.

Simply put, the researchers could change the pattern, extent and the time of progression of the viral infection, allowing them to study every aspect of the virus.

Result of the study

With the development of this model, scientists would be able to simulate a number of diseases and their progression. This would allow scientists to study these viral diseases with utmost precision, thus aiding the process of vaccine or drug formation.

For more information, read our article on COVID-19.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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