July 1, 2020
Human lungs are intricate 3D structures with air sacs surrounded by blood vessels with a gap between them that can be less than one micrometer. (As a frame of reference, human hair is about 100 micrometers wide) This minuscule gap/membrane between the air side and the blood side is the key to our respiratory system being able to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. The thin membranes modulate oxygen transfer in the lungs but so far no one has been able to fabricate them outside the human body.
Biomedical and chemical engineering Professor Soman has received a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for developing a model that would mimic the complex structure of human lungs using biocompatible hydrogel materials. His research group, which includes Dr. Puskal Kunwar, will utilize a new laser technology to print structures that resemble the micrometer-sized interfaces found in human lungs. An imaging system will also be integrated to show real-time assessment of oxygen and gas exchanges across model epithelial and endothelial cell monolayers seeded within the printed structures.
Soman and Kunwar hope that this work will be a significant step towards being able to construct human organs that can save lives and speed up the recovery process.
“We believe that this multi-scale device will be useful as a physiological model and screening platform for various bio-related applications. For instance, the device can serve as a model system to assess therapeutic efficacy of candidate drugs for lung disease,” said Kunwar.
“With this new technology, we can recreate that one-micron membrane structure and really understand what is going on with the gas exchange in human lungs. This project will pave the path towards realizing the dream of on-demand printing of a human scale lung tissue using 3D printing,” said Soman.
The ability to produce an accurate lung model could also give doctors a way to screen drugs that potentially save countless lives in the event of a future pandemic.