Pune scientist develops 3D model of lungs to study coronavirus’s impact on it

Study finds high levels of inflammation in the stem cells of the alveoli, destroying not just the infected cells, but the surrounding uninfected ones as well leading to lung damage.

In March 2020, when the first wave of Covid-19 hit the world, Dr Apoorva Mulay, who hails from Pune, took it up as a challenge to study the impact of the novel coronavirus on the lungs.

Using her expertise in model development (simulating an organ in an artificial laboratory environment), Dr Mulay developed 3-dimensional models of the human lungs and studied how SARS-CoV-2 affects it.

A postdoctoral research scientist at the Lung and Regenerative Medicine Institutes at Cedar-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, USA, Dr Mulay found that Covid -19 leads to induction of high levels of inflammation in the stem cells of the alveoli and causes death of not just the infected cells, but also the surrounding uninfected cells, leading to lung damage.

Dr Mulay developed a 3D model of the human alveoli by growing stem cells from patients’ lung samples in the lab and studied the effect of Covid -19 on these alveolar cells.

In April this year, a prominent bioscience journal Cell Reports published the study “SARS-CoV2 infection of primary human lung epithelium for Covid 19 modeling and drug discovery”.

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Speaking with The Indian Express, Dr Mulay said, “The lung is a complex organ and its structure changes as we go downwards from trachea or the windpipe to the alveoli or the bottom part of the lung that is responsible for exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the lungs and blood. It is the infection of the alveoli that causes serious symptoms and respiratory failure in severe cases of Covid-19.”

Dr Mulay’s study is the first culture model of the adult human alveoli to be used for studying Covid -19. A respiratory stem cell scientist who completed her her BSc in Biotechnology from Fergusson College and MSc in Molecular Medicine from the University of Sheffield, UK, she received full scholarship to pursue her PhD project jointly at the Infection and Immunity Department at University of Sheffield and the Department of Deafness at the Medical Research Council of UK in Oxfordshire.

Her PhD research focused on studying the role of an immunity gene found in the ear, nose and throat (ENT) and how the loss of this gene contributes to childhood hearing loss. Later, she undertook patient-oriented research to understand the role of stem cells in development of various fatal lung diseases with the goal of developing novel therapeutic solutions to promote lung regeneration and reverse lung diseases.

She then used this model as a platform to study how antiviral drugs such as Remdesivir help to minimize Covid-19 infection and help in preventing damage to these lung cells, which are crucial for maintaining oxygen levels. Dr Mulay joined Thermo Fisher Scientific, a producer of Covid -19 diagnostic test kits, where she uses her scientific and technical expertise to help various labs and hospitals perform Covid-19 diagnosis.

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