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COVID-19 Research at ATS 2021

The American Thoracic Society (ATS) conference is one of the premier events in the calendar for respiratory researchers and clinicians alike. As we have all become accustomed to over the past year, this year’s conference took on a virtual format with a mix of live and on-demand pre-recorded sessions. Despite missing the chance to personally reconnect with colleagues and friends, this year’s conference had on show all the cutting-edge research we have come to expect from ATS; in particular, the rapid progress that has been made in understanding the biology, pathophysiology and treatment of COVID-19.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and public face of the American response to the pandemic, was guest speaker at the opening ceremony. He presented a general overview of the current state of our understanding of COVID-19, emerging concerns around variants and the outlook for vaccine effectiveness.

A broad range of COVID-19 research was presented throughout the conference from clinical perspectives, social and structural determinants, though to basic science on virus pathophysiology and model development. Some of the highlights from the sessions that the SCIREQ team were fortunate to attend are summarized below:


Dr Josef Penninger, University of British Columbia (Canada)

The importance of Dr. Penninger’ s group’s previous work with ACE2, particularly their role in the confirmation that the ACE2 protein was the functional receptor for the SARS-CoV-1 virus, has been brought back into focus by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the original SARS outbreak, Dr. Penninger developed a soluble human recombinant ACE2 protein, as a therapeutic, which has now been applied to SARS-CoV-2. Dr Penninger described the approach as highly robust, with a high probability to work even in the face of variants and the possibility of vaccine failure. The work has progressed to a phase IIB clinical trial in Europe. In addition, he suspects that the deregulation of the ACE1/ACE2 balance could be involved in the long-term effects of COVID-19.


Dr Cara Tannenbaum, Université de Montréal, Montréal (QC, Canada)

During her Keynote presentation, Dr. Tannenbaum discussed sex and gender research: an area highlighted by the pandemic, as COVID-19 severity and mortality rates are higher in men than in women. She explained that sex and gender are not interchangeable terms, as the former refers to biological factors and the latter to sociocultural behaviours and factors, such as socially constructed roles or identity. While sex differences have implications for lung development and anatomy, gender-related differences can lead to occupational differences associated with higher risk of toxic exposures. She provided examples of sex and gender science analyses to demonstrate how this research approach can help understand why, for a same prevalence, a specific group would be more likely to be affected by a given disease.  She concluded on some best practices, which included the recommendation for studies to be performed in both males and females.


Ralph Baric, University of North Carolina

Dr. Baric has a wealth of knowledge on the Sarbecovirus group of viruses, of which SARS-CoV-2 is a member. In his presentation “Viral Determinants of Respiratory Epithelial SARS-CoV-2 Infection” he gave a brief tour of the large pool of related viruses of concern, i.e. viruses that have the potential to jump the species barrier. He then went on to describe the work his team has been performing developing coronavirus research tools, such as indicator tagged viruses and mouse-adapted viruses (modified spike protein), as well as studies of airborne transmission in hamsters.


Barry Stripp, Cedar Sinai Medical Center 

Dr. Stripp discussed his group’s work developing in vitro primary patient-derived cell culture models of the tracheal and alveolar epithelium, using air-liquid interface (ALI) and organoid approaches, in his presentation “SARS-CoV- 2 infection of primary human lung epithelial cells for disease modeling and drug discovery”. Dr. Stripp demonstrated SARS-CoV-2 infection, in organoid models, of both alveolar type 1 and type 2 like-cells and the use of microfluidic chips for the induction of recurrent stretch. These models provide an excellent basis for high throughput testing of SARS-CoV-2 therapeutics, and this was validated in their recent publication which confirmed the suppression of viral infection/replication by remdesivir.


The use of translational models for COVID-19 study was also discussed at the SCIREQ hosted panel event, which was held just prior to ATS, with Dr. Adam Bailey, Dr. Ian Davis, Dr. Paul McCray, and Dr. Wayne Mitzner. You can watch the video recording at the following link: Watch Translational Preclinical Models of COVID-19.

COVID-19 Research at ATS

As the vaccine rollout continues and the COVID-19 situation improves, we all hope to be able to return to in-person conferences and to re-connect, in the real-world, with colleagues and friends!

To learn more about the current preclinical models of COVID-19, along with our pulmonary solutions for lung function, drug delivery and inhalation exposure – feel free to visit our COVID-19 Resource Page.

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