Ending Transplant Shortages with 3D Printed Lungs

United Therapeutics recently constructed the uppermost portion of a pair of lungs using a 3D printer. The company earns over one billion every year selling pharmaceuticals to those with lung pathologies and is now attempting to pioneer the creation of the first 3D printed lungs. Their efforts are partnered with 3D Systems, a leader in the 3D printing industry that has been making headlines this summer.

The collagen model printed of a trachea and its two bronchi is not made of a viable material for implantation, however, United is working on using the collagen matrix in concert with human cells to foster the growth of usable tissue.


The 3D Systems printer currently uses a stereolithography technique in which a UV laser interacts with a pool of collagen, generating solid collagen when the two come into contact. The trachea and bronchi were generated in a layer by layer manner that took roughly 12 hours. It would take almost a year to generate an entire set of lungs in this manner. Additionally, the current printer has a resolution of roughly 20 micrometers. To match the intricacies of a true lung, the machine will need to reduce this resolution to less than one micrometer in size.

These shortcomings lead many to the conclusion that we are nowhere near being able to print entire organs. “We all think it’s going to be possible at some point in the future,” says Sharon Presnell, a scientist experimenting with printing layers of liver tissue. “Where we differ is how long it will take.”


United Therapeutics is hopeful that they will be able to one day generate viable lung tissue. In a Harvard University study that United Therapeutics financed this year, human cells harvested from umbilical cords and lung tissue were incorporated into pig lung with its own cells removed and displayed short term basic function when reconnected to the pig’s blood flow.

Like the 3D printed heart that BioLife4D plans to create, United Therapeutics goal to artificially create a set of lungs could be very beneficial to those in need of transplantation. With only half of the patients who require a lung transplant every year receiving one, there is a drastic donor shortage that could be alleviated by 3D printing lungs.

Source: MIT Technology ReviewLung Disease News