Lab-grown stomachs help to shed light on COVID-19 symptoms in children

A microscopic image of the mini stomachs used in the research.

Recent advances in lab-grown mini organs, also known as organoids, can provide scientists with invaluable tools to study how our human organs function, both when they are healthy, and when they impacted by disease. 

For the first time, an international team of scientists and doctors have used these advances to develop a lab-grown model of the human stomach. This can be used to study how infections in humans impact the gastrointestinal system.

To do this, researchers isolate stem cells from patient stomach samples, and grow them under special conditions in the lab. This creates mini stomachs in a petri dish that can mimic the behaviour of a human stomach.

An international collaboration between researchers

This development was pioneered by an international team, representing a collaboration between Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (UCL GOS ICH), and the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie (Legnaro, Italy).

It was led by Dr. Giovanni Giuseppe Giobbe, Prof. Nicola Elvassore and Prof. Paolo De Coppi from UCL GOS ICH, with much of their work carried out in the Zayed Centre for Research into Rare Disease in Children (ZCR). Their co-lead Dr Francesco Bonfante carried out their work from Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie.

NIHR Professor Paolo De Coppi, Consultant Paediatric Surgeon at GOSH and Nuffield Professor of Paediatric Surgery at UCL GOS ICH.
NIHR Professor Paolo De Coppi, Consultant Paediatric Surgeon at GOSH and Nuffield Professor of Paediatric Surgery at UCL GOS ICH.

Pivoting research aims in the pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed and gastrointestinal symptoms began to be reported, particularly in children, the team pivoted their research to focus on the impact of coronavirus (also known as SARS-CoV-2) on the gastrointestinal system, realising that their mini-stomach could be a vital tool for studying this.

As a research team, we are proud to have been able to contribute to the global fight against coronavirus in this way.

NIHR Professor Paolo De Coppi, Consultant Paediatric Surgeon at GOSH and Nuffield Professor of Paediatric Surgery at UCL GOS ICH.

How do these mini stomachs help explain COVID-19 symptoms?

The scientists were able to infect the mini stomachs from the outside by exposing the surface of the cells to SARS-CoV-2. From this they showed that SARS-CoV-2 could replicate within the stomach. Importantly, it replicated more noticeably in organoids that were grown from the child and late foetal cells, compared to adult and early foetal cells.

This study has highlighted that SARS-CoV-2 infection may begin to infect the gastrointestinal system via the stomach in children and young babies. We hope that this adds another piece to the puzzle as we try to build our understanding of the impact of the virus across the body.

Professor Paolo De Coppi

The research team were able to look at the impact of the infection on the cells within the organoids, showing that a specific group of cells, called delta cells that make a hormone called somatostatin, had died, which could explain some of the stomach symptoms seen in patients. The team’s laboratory results mirror the pattern of gastrointestinal symptoms seen in patients of different ages.

An illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus
An illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus

Future work with the mini stomachs

The team now plan to continue their work with the mini stomachs aiming to study how the stomach develops from early in pregnancy through to adulthood. They also hope to look at the effects of other common gastrointestinal infections.

The study’s co-lead, a Senior Research Associate at UCL GOS ICH, Dr Giovanni G. Giobbe agreed, “We want to increase our understanding of how infections impact the stomach so that we can further the search for new treatments.

Developing reliable models of organs that scientists and doctors can study in a lab are vital as they allow us to work out how organ tissue is affected during such disease and infection.

Dr Giovanni G. Giobbe, Senior Research Associate at UCL GOS ICH

Read the study published by Nature Communications: SARS-CoV-2 infection and replication in human gastric organoids

Browse A-Z