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3D Printing Homepage

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VA researchers working on 3D-printed artificial lung

Thomas Dworetzky , Contributing Reporter
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.

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“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.”
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