3D Printed Human Lung Scaffold Showcased by 3D Systems and United Therapeutics

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Ever since 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) partnered with biotech firm United Therapeutics (Nasdaq: UTHR) in 2017, the duo have focused on printing scaffolds for human lungs. The hope is that ultimately (a few decades from now) they can create a substantial supply of lungs ready to replace transplants. Now, the partners have showcased a fully printed human lung scaffold at this year’s CNN-sponsored Life Itself conference.

During the sold-out three-night event in San Diego, United Therapeutics founder and CEO Martine Rothblatt, along with 3D printing pioneer Chuck Hull, explained to attendees during their “What’s the Future of Organ Transplantation?” presentation that their 3D-printable lung scaffold designs consisted of a record 44 trillion voxels that lay out 4,000 kilometers of pulmonary capillaries and 200 million alveoli. As a reference, each lung has, on average, around 350 million alveoli.

Commenting on the latest milestone, Rothblatt said that it was exciting to show the public at the event a 3D printed human lung scaffold. Furthermore, the expert confirmed that the 3D printed lung scaffolds are now demonstrating gas exchange in animal models, a vital process whereby oxygen moves from the lungs to the bloodstream, and carbon dioxide passes from the blood to the lungs.

“We are regularly printing lung scaffolds as accurately as driving across the United States and not deviating from a course by more than the width of a human hair. With the continued hard work of dedicated scientists and engineers at United Therapeutics and 3D Systems, we hope to have these personalized, manufactured lungs cleared for human trials in under five years,” continued Rothblatt.

According to United Therapeutics, the lung scaffolds developed in partnership with 3D Systems and revealed at the Life Itself event represent the most complex objects ever printed and what Hull describes as “the culmination of our efforts with United Therapeutics.” Their work includes not only 3D printed lungs but two additional organs under development, kidneys and livers.

According to Hull, these lung designs can be printed in as little as three weeks using 3D Systems’ latest advanced photopolymer-based bioprinting technology. Known as Print to Perfusion, this is a newly developed process that enables 3D printing of high-resolution scaffolds, which can be perfused with living cells to create tissues. The AM platform capable of printing full-size, vascularized, micron-level lung scaffolds is part of the 3D Systems regenerative medicine segment.

Human vasculature model created using Print to Perfusion process.

Human vasculature model created using Print to Perfusion process. Image courtesy of United Therapeutics.

Eventually, scientists at United Therapeutics plan to cellularize these 3D printed scaffolds with a patient’s own stem cells to create tolerable, transplantable human lungs that should not require immunosuppression to prevent rejection. Considering that over 1,000 patients in the U.S. alone are waiting for a transplant and more than 150,000 Americans die from lung disease each year, Rothblatt highlighted the importance of working towards the ultimate goal of creating an unlimited supply of transplantable lungs.

In the meantime, United Therapeutics has been keeping busy, following up on its mission to find a cure for pulmonary arterial hypertension and other life-threatening diseases. For example, it has been using a process called ex-vivo lung perfusion (EVLP) – the first FDA-approved method of this kind on the market – to add to the supply of transplantable lungs. The technology enables otherwise discarded lungs, which would be unable to be used in furtherance of their donors’ generous intent, to instead be frequently restored to transplantable and hence a life-saving condition.

The key to this method lies in extending the period of assessment and viability for human donor lungs by several hours, resulting in over 230 lives extended to date. Currently, United Therapeutics’ centralized EVLP service model is part of a clinical study, which Rothblatt believes will benefit thousands of patients who die “needlessly awaiting transplants.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Marc Hodosh.

LIFE ITSELF conference with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Marc Hodosh. Image courtesy of Life Itself.

The 3D printed human lung scaffold breakthrough was one of several novelties showcased at the Life Itself event, including a so-called “ghost heart,” which was built from the scaffolding of a pig and a patient’s cells and may soon be ready for transplant into humans; as well as advances in cooking lab-grown chicken, and ways to repair mutated genes.

Overall, the event brought together experts and thinkers across a wide range of disciplines, including research, technology, government, business, and entertainment. Hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN, and Marc Hodosh, entrepreneur and co-creator of TEDMED, the gathering had renowned personalities like Anthony Fauci, Chelsea Clinton, and Norman Lear, along with thought leaders such as Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Scott Kelly, Goldie Hawn, and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, among others.

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