Trouble breathing? In the future VA will print you a new set of lungs!

Jonathan Kaupanger
September 25, 2018 - 1:25 pm

Photo by Brian Hayes


There you are, walking down the street and it hits you... you can’t breathe.  Every thought you have is directed to getting your lungs to work, but when you inhale, it’s like breathing through a straw.  But you don’t panic, you just plug into the 3D printed lungs you’ve been carrying in your fanny pack.

A biomedical engineer at the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System in Michigan, Dr. Joseph Potkay is close to producing the world’s first 3D printed and wearable artificial lung.  It would be used to help patients who are waiting for a transplant or those who suffer from Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A disease that's estimated to plague 16 percent of veterans. 

Heart-lung machines with artificial lungs have been in use for decades, but they are bulky pieces of equipment mounted on a wheeled pole.  They require pure compressed oxygen stored in heavy cylinders. Sometimes called portable or ambulatory lungs, in Dr. Potkay opinion, they aren’t truly portable.

“All artificial lungs still only support a fraction of the gas exchange needed for an active person,” explains Potkay.  “They can do full support for somebody at bed rest, but there’s a lot of issues that need to be overcome to be able to replace the natural lung completely.”

To get past this point, Potkay has been researching microfabrication, or the recreation of tiny structures, to build artificial lungs.  “Microfabrication is mainly a two-dimensional construction technology,” says Potkay.  “With a 2D design, you stack many single 2D layers together.  That has limited the ease of creating devices that are large enough for human use.  You have less freedom in how you design the blood channels.  3D printing these devices may be a solution to these problems.  We can be much more precise and efficient with how the blood flow path is laid out in three dimensions.”

Photo by Brian Hayes

Dr. Potkay is working with a company in Virginia that specializes in high-resolution 3D printing.  “It’s a pretty complex problem,” says Potkay.  “They haven’t seen anything quite like it yet.”

The prototype should be ready in the next few months.  It will be about a half-inch cube in size.  It contains small artificial vessels that are about 50 microns in diameter, which is the same size as the average human hair. 

Right now, Potkay is focusing on patients with a buildup of CO2 in the blood.  This happens to many veterans suffering from end-stage COPD.  Signs of end-stage COPD include severe shortness of breath, chronic coughing, lung infections or respiratory failure.  Excess CO2 must be removed from the lungs, if not it can lead to sudden cardiac death.  In tests with animal blood using traditional microfabrication techniques, the small-scale artificial lungs achieved the highest gas efficiency exchange of any artificial lung to date, according to Potkay. He expects the “excellent performance” to translate to the 3D lung.

Potkay says it’s impossible to know how long until a 3D-printed lung becomes implantable.  The device must be able to maintain blood pressure, decrease injury to blood cells and minimize clotting and immune response.   “3D printing is still a young field,” says Potkay.  “And this is the first investigation into creating artificial lungs using it.  The future is bright as the technology improves.”

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