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Human 3D Airway Tissue Models for Real-Time Microscopy: Visualizing Respiratory Virus Spreading

Our knowledge about respiratory virus spreading is mostly based on monolayer cultures that hardly reflect the complex organization of the airway epithelium. Thus, there is a strong demand for biologically relevant models. One possibility to study virus spreading at the cellular level is real-time imaging. In an attempt to visualize virus spreading under somewhat more physiological conditions, Calu-3 cells and human primary fibroblasts were co-cultured submerged or as air-liquid interface (ALI). An influenza A virus (IAV) replicating well in cell culture, and carrying a red fluorescent protein (RFP) reporter gene was used for real-time imaging. Our three-dimensional (3D) models exhibited important characteristics of native airway epithelium including a basement membrane, tight junctions and, in ALI models, strong mucus production. In submerged models, first fluorescence signals appeared between 9 and 12 h post infection (hpi) with a low multiplicity of infection of 0.01. Virus spreading further proceeded in the immediate vicinity of infected cells. In ALI models, RFP was found at 22 hpi and later. Consequently, the progression of infection was delayed, in contrast to the submerged model. With these features, we believe that our 3D airway models can deliver new insights in the spreading of IAV and other respiratory viruses.

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