Veterans suffering from lung disease may someday draw new breath thanks to revolutionary efforts by researchers to use 3D printing to create an artificial lung.
The efforts taking place at the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Michigan are focused on creating a device that is compatible with living cells and small enough to be either wearable or portable and could act as a “bridge” until a permanent transplant could be performed. Someday, hope researchers, the devices could even become reliable and implantable enough for longer-term use.
“Our Veterans deserve the highest quality of care and the latest breakthroughs in medical science,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a statement. “This exciting project is the latest in a long string of incredible research and medical advancements developed by VA researchers over the years. The results of this project could change millions of lives for the better.”
Lung problems can strike people in a military setting when they are exposed to burn pits, sand, diesel exhaust and chemicals. In addition, nearly 20 percent of veterans with severe traumatic brain injury also have acute lung injury.
Beyond those with acute lung issues, artificial lungs could help treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a disease afflicting 16 percent of veterans and 5 percent of the general population.
The lung project is the first time high-resolution 3D polymer printing has been applied to creating microfluidic lungs with three-dimensional blood flow networks, according to research leader Dr. Joseph Potkay, a biomedical engineer at the Michigan institution who is leading the VA-funded research.
This new lung design, he advised, mimics the structure of the natural lung better than conventional artificial lungs with its tiny blood channels, some thinner than a human hair, more closely resembling the real vessels found in a person. In addition, biocompatible coatings on the device's surface help reduce any immune reaction – always a risk when introducing foreign elements into the body.
“We hope that these microfluidic flow paths and biocompatible coatings will be more compatible with living tissue, thereby reducing the body’s immune response and increasing the lifetime of the device,” said Potkay in a VA report on the research, adding that, “the flexibility in design afforded by 3D printing gives us more freedom and thus the ease to build artificial lungs with a small size and pressure drops that are compatible for operation with the body’s natural pressures.”
This is just the latest application of 3D printing technology in the medical sector. In August, for example, chemically coated ceramic implants successfully guided the regrowth of missing bone
in lab animals while “steadily dissolving,” researchers at NYU School of Medicine and NYU College of Dentistry reported in the Journal of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine.
"Our 3D scaffold represents the best implant in development because of its ability to regenerate real bone," study senior investigator and NYU Dentistry Professor Paulo Coelho said in a statement, adding, “our latest study results move us closer to clinical trials and potential bone implants for children living with skull deformations since birth, as well as for veterans seeking to repair damaged limbs.”
The printing technology has been invaluable for creating exact models to work out tricky surgery in advance, as well. In May, surgeons at Guy’s and St. Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust in London produced models
to help plan for safely implanting a kidney from a young child's father – the first time this technology was used to map out a successful transplant of an adult kidney into a small child with anatomical complexities.
“The ability to print a 3D model of the patient’s anatomy in varying textures, with the intricacies of the blood vessels clearly visible within it, enables us to differentiate critical anatomical relations between structures,” Pankaj Chandak, the transplant registrar at Guy’s and St. Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, told HCB News. “The flexible materials also allowed us to better mimic the flexibility of organs within the abdomen for simulation of the surgical environment.”