Veterans Affairs

3D-printed artificial lungs

Wearable device will be compatible with living tissue and capable of short- and long-term respiratory support

Medical & Biotechnology

A biomedical engineer at the Department of Veterans Affairs has designed a 3D-printed artificial lung for treating lung disease. The patent-pending technology is available to businesses who would turn it into a new product.

Biomedical engineer Dr. Joseph Potkay, with the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System, displays a 2D prototype of an artificial lung. A 3D version has also been developed. (Brian Hayes/VA)

More than 33 million Americans are living with chronic lung disease; it is responsible for nearly 400,000 deaths every year and is a major disease associated with an increasing death rate. Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) has a 25-40% mortality rate and affects more than 190,000 Americans each year. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects 5% of American adults and approximately 16% of the veteran population.

In severe cases, ventilators are commonly used to partially compensate for the pulmonary insufficiency caused by the lung diseases mentioned above. However, the high airway pressures and oxygen concentrations of the vent can result in tissue and lung trauma and can exacerbate the original illness, even resulting in multi-organ failure. In response, artificial lung technologies have been developed to provide respiratory support and allow the lungs to heal while the patient rehabilitates. In chronic cases, artificial lungs serve as a bridge to transplant, increasing survival rates and improving quality of life.

Artificial lungs mimic the function of natural lungs by adding 02 to and removing C02 from the blood. In operation, blood is routed from the body to the artificial lung and once inside, blood travels along one side of a gas permeable membrane. Pure oxygen typically flows along the other side of the membrane and is transferred to the blood by diffusion through the membrane. Carbon dioxide diffuses out of the blood due to lower partial pressure in the gas stream. The oxygenated blood is then returned to the body.

Despite advancements, treatment and outcomes with artificial lung systems remain unsatisfactory. Current systems permit minimal ambulation and their use is typically limited to the ICU. Truly portable systems that enable full ambulation are simply not possible with current technologies. Device-mediated complications including inflammation, device clotting, and hemolysis are common during treatment with current systems. Most devices have clinical lifetimes measured in days.

The performance and biocompatibility of current artificial lungs are limited and while new microfluidic devices have demonstrated potential improvement in both of these areas, contemporary manufacturing techniques are not suitable for large area, human scale devices. Further, the planar nature of current microfabrication techniques limits potential design topologies leading to inefficient blood flow networks.

To address these deficiencies, Dr. Joseph Potkay has developed a new artificial lung design and build process which can provide improved gas exchange, portability, and biocompatibility. The new artificial lungs incorporate surface areas and blood priming volumes that are a fraction of current technologies, thereby decreasing device size and reducing the body’s immune response. They contain blood flow networks in which cells and platelets experience pressures, shear stresses, and branching angles that copy those in the human lung, thereby improving biocompatibility. For easier operation, they function efficiently with room air, eliminating the need for gas cylinders and complications associated with hyperoxemia. Simplifying a patients life, the new device will operate with natural pressures and eliminate the need for blood pumps (depending on application). The new artificial lungs can be produced via a 3D printing process or roll-to-roll process.

After integration into various complete systems, it is contemplated that the devices can provide lung rest for patients suffering from acute pulmonary disabilities, serve as a bridge to transplant for patients with chronic lung disease and lung cancer, and lead to the development of the first implantable artificial lung for semi-permanent support. In addition, the technology can be used in portable heart-lung machines for forward surgical care on the battlefield and elsewhere.

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