Breathe Easy: The Science of Artificial Lungs (and Other Organs)

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According to the 1999 film Bicentennial Man, society is about 40 years away from fully-functioning artificial organs. But according to science, the timeline might be a little shorter. Bicentennial Man follows the journey of a robot intent on becoming human, so much so that he studies medicine to build artificial organs for himself (which are also used by humans). Researchers at Case Western Reserve University are hoping to have a human-scale version of an artificial lung in clinical trials within a decade, and did we mention the machine that can print out organs? That’s coming along as well. 

Building Lungs and Hearts

The artificial lung developed by researchers at Case Western Reserve University. Source: Joe PotkayArtificial lungs and hearts are not new inventions. But they are inventions that are not only meant for temporary placement (until a donor organ can be located) – they also require bulky equipment. Current artificial hearts, for example, are run by a box outside the body, which is small but needs to be carried by the recipient of the artificial heart. Artificial lungs need equipment too: compressed oxygen tanks.

Recent research in both artificial hearts and lungs might open the door for permanent placement with little to no equipment.  The artificial lung at Case Western Reserve University runs on air – not pure oxygen – and has three to five times better oxygen exchange efficiency than current artificial lungs. The researchers also believe the artificial lung will mimic the size of a human lung and be portable, with no added equipment. “Based on current device performance, we estimate that a unit that could be used in humans would be about 6 inches by 6 inches by 4 inches tall, or about the volume of the human lung. In addition, the device could be driven by the heart and would not require a mechanical pump,” said Joe Potkay, the research team lead and research assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University. 

Potkay’s artificial lung is not ready for human testing though. The research team is collaborating with other departments at the university to develop the device’s durability for testing in rodents. The artificial lung is also not meant as a permanent replacement for a damaged or diseased lung; the research team hopes the device will serve as a bridge for patients awaiting lung transplants.

A permanent artificial heart, however, appears to be on the way. In 2008, heart surgeon Alain Carpentier announced the development of a new, fully implantable artificial heart. The device, which regulates heart rate and blood flow with sensors, is meant to replace failing human hearts permanently. The artificial heart will enter clinical trials in 2011 and the research team expects it will be available in 2013 for placement in patients. 

An Organ Printer

Building organs with synthetic materials is one thing but what about building organs from human cells? In late 2010, the San Diego biotech company Organova “printed” a blood vessel. The vessel, made entirely from human cells, was constructed in all of 45 minutes via a bioprinter that dispenses the cells through two robotic tips. The blood vessel was then flushed with nutrients (mimicking blood flow) and allowed to mature for a month. Organova plans to test the vessels in animals later this year, which they hope will pave the way for the vessels to be used in bypass surgery. Currently, bypass surgery is performed with blood vessels taken from other areas of the body; the printed vessels would be a viable alternative. Down the road, Organova hopes to print more complex in-demand organs, such as kidneys.

So there you have it. Organs are being built synthetically and from human cells, and hopefully these inventions will help patients in need of organ transplants. Or a robot hoping to become a little more human… 


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.