3D Printed Lungs – The Future of Treating Asbestos Illnesses?

The article was originally published on mesothelioma.net.

The advent of 3D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, has opened up a whole new word of opportunities in a variety of industries, from industrial components to decorative candy. This technology is making it possible to make more things, more quickly and more cost-effectively. One of the most exciting areas of application is in medicine.

3D printing technology is just beginning to be applied to the manufacturing of human tissues and organs. The potential for healing people is immense, as transplanting organs fr om one person to another has always been problematic. For patients with mesothelioma or asbestosis, the technology could ultimately lead to new lungs and tissue that could mean the difference between life and death. Before this happens, though, there is a lot of research and study needed.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of creating a three-dimensional object from a computer file. A 3D printing machine uses some material, or materials, to lay down layers in a specific pattern to create the object. This is called an additive process because it involves adding materials, layer by layer, as opposed to carving or hollowing out a material to make the object, called subtractive. Additive manufacturing makes an accurate object based on a design and uses less material. Nearly anything can be made, with any material, using additive technology.

Printing Human Tissues and Organs

The potential for manufacturing human tissues and entire organs is hugely important in medicine. Currently, doctors and patients rely on donated tissues and organs, such as skin for skin grafts of burn victims or kidneys for patients suffering from renal failure. There are numerous problems with tissue and organ donation, not least of which is that most patients have to wait on long lists for life-saving donations. There is also the issue of matching donors to patients and the possibility that the patient’s immune system will reject an organ.

Artificial organs have already been created using additive technology, but none have yet been transplanted into a person. An ear was one of the first organs made with 3D printing, and it was made with hydrogels, cells, and silver nanoparticles. Medical companies have even already begun to create tissue made from living cells. These tissues are currently being used to test experimental drugs. The next step would be to use patches of tissue to repair damage in patients, such as a patch of liver tissue to treat someone with a damaged liver.

So far, printing an entire organ out of living human cell is not possible. That isn’t stopping researchers from trying, though, or from printing synthetic organs, such as hearts made of silicone. Major challenges that exist in actually 3D printing transplantable organs are matching the complexity of real organs, getting blood vessels to attach to and supply blood to organs, and the massive cost of doing all of this. No experts agree on when the technology will be able to print real organs, but most agree that it will happen eventually.

Lung Transplants for Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

The advancing technology is exciting for many people, but for those living with what are considered terminal illnesses, the possibility of getting new organs is life-changing. Lung transplants are risky and require surgeons with expertise in organ transplant. However, if a successful match is found and the surgery goes well, a lung transplant can give a patient a new lease on life. Finding that match is often a challenge.

This is wh ere 3D printed lungs and tissues could be important. Patients living with asbestos disease wouldn’t need to wait for a matching donor or suffer on a waiting list. Instead, a lung could be custom printed for each patient. A lung transplant is not a common treatment for mesothelioma, but it is a possibility. Another potential use for 3D printed tissue could be the replacement of diseased pleural tissue in patients with pleural mesothelioma. A Czech company has already created a synthetic lung using 3d printing. Although it is not yet being used as a transplant, it is an important first step.

For patients with asbestosis, lung transplant is a strategy that is sometimes used to extend lives. Asbestosis is progressive lung scarring caused by asbestos exposure. It is not cancerous, but the scarring does make breathing progressively more difficult, until ultimately the patient cannot breathe without assistance. It is a terminal illness, but if the damaged lung can be replaced, a patient has a hope of surviving this disease.

3D Printing and Lung Surgery

It is not just the printing of new organs that makes 3D printing technology so exciting for mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other lung disease patients. Surgeons are already using the technology to make surgery more accurate and safer. The technology can be used to map and create models of the inside of a patient’s body before lung surgery.

Surgeons are also able to use stem cells as the “ink” in 3D printing to create layers of cells that can be used to treat damaged lungs. The stem cell, printed tissue is used to replace damaged and diseased lung cells. This technology could potentially be used in the treatment of mesothelioma and asbestosis. The next step would be to 3D print blood vessels that can be used in lung surgery to promote blood flow and ensure that transplanted organs are more likely to survive and function.

The technology behind 3D printing is exciting, but nowhere is it more hopeful than in medicine. That patients one day may not have to wait for donated organs is groundbreaking. Much more work and research needs to happen before this becomes a reality, but the research is already being conducted and is moving quickly from one breakthrough to the next. There just may be a time when printed tissues, stem cells, and even complete organs could mean the difference between life and death for people affected by asbestos, mesothelioma, and other related lung diseases.