Veteran Affairs Researchers Use 3D Printing Technology to Fight Lung Diseases

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VA scientists have begun testing 3D-printed artificial lung prototypes on animals for eventual human use.

Scientists at Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in Ann Arbor are researching the use of 3D-printed artificial lungs to treat Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

COPD affects about 16% of the veteran population due to exposure to burn pits, chemicals, and other hazardous breathing conditions, leading to high rates of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Veterans with end-stage COPD often have dangerously high levels of CO2 in their blood, which poses the risk of sudden cardiac death.

Artificial lungs help remove excess CO2, but technology for lung disease patients has traditionally consisted of bulky devices that require appropriate blood pressure and other factors.

Now, the Ann Arbor researchers are collaborating with 3D printing company Old World Labs to create artificial lung prototypes capable of fitting in a backpack and that can be used for a week. The devices are currently being tested in rabbits, and the time before it will be available for human use is uncertain.

Of primary concern is the device's lifespan: “To be implantable, it needs to be able to operate for months without being swapped out,” Dr. Joseph Potkay, the head researcher, explained.

Dr. Potkay used microfabrication methods to build 2D-printed artificial lungs prototypes in 2011, but stated that “3D printing should result in artificial lungs with a smaller overall footprint and with increased efficiency. Thus, portability and performance will potentially improve.”

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