Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

Researchers Growing Mini-Lungs To Study Coronavirus Impacts On Different Race, Gender

Mini-lungs or lung organoids grow in a petri dish, August 3, 2020.

Credit: Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute

Above: Mini-lungs or lung organoids grow in a petri dish, August 3, 2020.

San Diego scientists are growing mini-lungs from a diverse set of stem cells to see how COVID-19 impacts the organ.

Researchers are hoping the study shows how coronavirus affects people from different backgrounds.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

Researchers collected stem cells from people with different racial backgrounds and gender and then used them to grow organoids, or small functioning organs, in Petri dishes.

Federal data show coronavirus disproportionately impacts people of color and men. UC San Diego neonatologist Sandra Leibel has been using mini-lungs throughout her studies of different lung diseases in babies for years and said they can also be applied to study this disparity.

"There's a lung disease that patients end up on the ventilator with and it's called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. And those patients that end up with ARDS and get really sick and need hospitalization, as well as ventilator support, are more often people that come from various ethnic backgrounds, mainly Latino and African-American," she said.

"And that's why we want to use our mini lungs in order to understand why this is happening."

Reported by Shalina Chatlani

Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute is exposing the mini-lungs to coronavirus and a number of promising antiviral drugs, biologist Evan Snyder said. That’s not only to show biologically why the disparity exists but also whether certain antivirals could be tweaked to help different people more effectively.

"Why are cells that come from one race perhaps different than another? Is it something fundamentally different or is it environmental things or socioeconomic things?" he said. "Even if we didn't get the answer to that, if we validated these drugs in a clinically relevant system and we saw a difference, we could just compensate for that. By changing dose or dosing regime so that anything that we discovered should be applicable to all patients across the board."

The team obtained stem cells from a bank that harbors stem cells from whites, Blacks and Latinos, both male and female, Snyder said. Now they are collecting the data.

There's already existing evidence to show people of color often experience more of an inflammatory response with the disease than white people do, Leibel said.

"Both Evan and I are neonatologists and we are there for women who come in and deliver their babies prematurely. We have seen and there is evidence that those women that had to undergo systemic racism or are forced to live in a lower socioeconomic status definitely have what's called weathering," she said.

"And that's this constant stress response in their bodies is constant inflammatory response in their bodies," she said. "The hypothesis is that's why they're more at risk of delivering their babies prematurely."

They think the data may show similar conclusions but it's still too early to tell, she said. Researchers are planning to look at how the virus may impact mini-brains, given emerging research that coronavirus could have neurological impacts, she said.


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.