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

The advent of 3D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, has opened up opportunities in a variety of industries, from industrial components to decorative candy. 3D printing  technology is makes it possible to manufacture a greater variety of goods more quickly and cost-effectively. One of the most exciting areas of application is the medical field.

3D printing technology is just beginning to be applied to the manufacturing of synthetic human tissues and organs. With donor organ trnasplants often being problematic, the potential for healing is immense. For patients with mesothelioma or asbestosis, 3D technology could ultimately lead to new lungs and tissue. This could mean the difference between life and death. Before 3D printing becomes a viable treatment for mesothelioma patients, however, research and study are 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 a subtractive process, or the carving a material to make the object. 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. There are numerous problems with tissue and organ donation. Most patients wait months or even years on long lists for life-saving organ donations. There is also the difficulty of matching donors to patients, as well as the possibility the patient’s immune system rejecting a transplanted an organ.

Artificial organs have already been created using additive technology, but none have yet been transplanted into a person. An ear was the first organ made with 3D printing, constructed from hydrogels, cells, and silver nanoparticles. Medical companies have also begun to create tissue made from living cells. These tissues used to test experimental drugs. The next step will be using patches of tissue to repair organ damage in patients. One example would be to print a patch of liver tissue to treat someone with a damaged liver.

Thus far, printing an entire organ out of living human cell is not possible. However, this isn’t stopping researchers from attempting to print synthetic organs made of silicone. Major challenges exist in actually 3D printing transplantable organs, including matching the complexity of real organs, getting blood vessels to attach to and supply blood to organs, and the major expense of surgeries and post-surgery care. Experts do not agree on when the technology will be available to print real organs, although most agree that it will happen in the near future.

Lung Transplants for Asbestosis and Mesothelioma

The advancing 3D technology is exciting for many people. However, for those living with  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 where 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 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 printed stem cell 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 for use in lung surgery, promoting blood flow and increasing the odds transplanted organs will survive and function properly.

The technology behind 3D printing is exciting, but nowhere is it more promising than in medicine.Perhaps one day in the near future, patients will not have to wait for compatible donated organs,  More work and research is needed before this becomes a reality. However, research is already being conducted, quickly moving from one breakthrough to the next. The future could potentially see printed tissues, stem cells, and even complete organs, meaning extended life and improved life quality for people affected by asbestos, mesothelioma, and other related lung diseases.

Page edited by Dave Foster

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Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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