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3-D Printing and the Future of Lung Medicine

Most of the news on lung cancer research tends to focus on potential new drugs or procedures. We read a lot about advances in immunotherapy as the potential cure-all for cancers of every stripe, and perhaps someday that will be the case. Meanwhile, targeted therapies are being effectively developed to work with more and more types of cancer, with more genetic variations. But looming on the horizon is another potential game-changer: 3-D tissue printing.

Real life sci-fi

It seems like something out of a science fiction movie, where cloning is as easy as plugging some numbers into a computer and a machine will spit out a duplicate person, fully grown. But recent advances in 3-D printing have shown that it is possible to create models with a spongy material that mimics the tissue of the brain or lung.1

Where the technology currently stands, it seems that it is best served to create super-soft “scaffolds” for tissue regeneration, to help with the healing of organs in need of repair.2 Very small amounts of tissue have been successfully printed for use, primarily bits of skin, but only where blood supplies are not necessary to also replicate. However, there is work being done that may yield some promising results in as soon as a few years, but it will likely be over a decade before there are any prototype lungs ready to test.3,4

3-D printing and lung cancer research

The process of creating a new organ also relies on being able to take the foundational scaffold and turn it into functioning tissue. The most prominent theory on how this will work is via stem cells, which have the ability to change into other types of cells. Some preliminary attempts have also been made using lung cells from donor cadavers. In the meantime, other work is being done to refurbish donor lungs that might otherwise end up as medical waste and also to genetically modify pig lungs to act as potential human replacements.

A more direct and immediate use of 3-D printing for lung medicine can be seen in the work of Czech scientists who developed a “working” simulation model lung.5 Along with its computer model counterpart, the scientists from the Brno University of Technology use this lung to simulate chronic breathing problems as a means to develop more precise treatments. While the applications may be limited at the moment to determining the effectiveness of inhaled drugs or studying the airways, the possible benefits to chronic conditions like cystic fibrosis or some types of lung cancer are easy to imagine.

The future of merging technologies

While biochemistry has driven the most strident and amazing advances in lung cancer treatment over the past twenty years, it is important to remember that all the disciplines of science are intertwined. These advances in mechanical engineering that have created modern printers capable of replicating tissue are as potentially significant as any other recent groundbreaking event in cancer research.

Still in its relative infancy, 3-D tissue printing takes many forms today. While various techniques are being developed internationally, through both private industry and research institutions, there is something of a race to see who will get it right first. Ultimately, though, we are likely to see a coming-together of technologies as the promise of breathing life into a set of fabricated lungs comes closer to reality.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  2. Imperial College London. (2018, January 10). 3-D printing creates super soft structures that replicate brain and lungs. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 31, 2018 from
  4. CNN: 3-D printer produces organs.