3D printed lungs: hope to chronic lung disease patients

Lay Summary written by Sinem Tas

Lung diseases can be very dangerous. Many people suffer from lung diseases. Lung transplantation saves the life of a patient. However, there are not enough lungs to go to all the patients that need them. Therefore, many scientists are looking for a way to make new lungs.

It may sound like a movie but it will be possible to make a new lung with 3D printing. For 3D printing, we need cells and printable materials that cells can happily live in. Lungs have many cells. Cells are supported by lung tissue in which there are specific proteins. These proteins tell them how to attach and grow as well as where to go.  When the cells move from one place to another, they shape the tissue using their enzymes. Enzymes are a special type of protein in our body, which are responsible for breaking down larger molecules into smaller ones.

In my project, we develop a 3D printable material that the lung cells can shape with their enzymes. To do this, we use alginate. Alginate is a material that comes from seaweed that cells can grow on. It is possible to form different shapes with alginate by mixing it with a salt solution (calcium chloride). Calcium is a very important element for our body and is responsible for making bones. Calcium ion keeps the alginate structure together and it is possible to build different shapes. There are two problems associated with alginate. The first one is that alginate is foreign to our lung cells. It lacks the protein that our lung cells can recognise.  So our cells cannot survive in this material. The second problem is that the cells cannot reshape the alginate when they move. To solve these problems, we form different shapes of alginate by attaching them together with proteins instead of calcium ion. Due to the presence of the specific proteins, the lung cells happily live in alginate. They can also eat the proteins by using their enzymes when they want to move within the alginate.

In this project, we 3D print the simple structure of a tube with our new alginate material together with the lung cells. We use the patient’s own cells for 3D printing. This construct can mimic our airways, so it can be used to study how the disease progresses. Currently, we are looking at how to print complex structures, which are close to an actual lung. Hopefully one day, we will be able to print the whole lung to save the lives of patients.

About Sinem Tas

Sinem Tas is currently a researcher in Lung Bioengineering and Regeneration group (Dr. Darcy Wagner’s lab) at Lund University, Sweden. She received her PhD Degree (2016) from the University of Twente, The Netherlands in Membrane Science and Engineering. In 2018, she was awarded the Marie Curie/ERS RESPIRE fellowship to work on 3D bioprinting of smart hydrogels for lung tissue engineering at Dr. Darcy Wagner’s lab in Lund University, Sweden. Her current research focuses on development of materials and 3D in-vitro models for lung tissue engineering.

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