The scientist dreaming of an unlimited human organ factory
United says it is building a new germ-proof pig facility, which will be ready in 2023 and will support a clinical trial starting the following year. It’s not the fantastic commercial pig factory shown in Rothblatt’s architectural rendering, but it’s a stepping stone to it. Eventually, according to Rothblatt, a single facility could supply organs to the entire country, delivering them via all-electric air ambulances. Over the summer, she claims, an aviation company she invested in, Beta Technologies, flew an electric vertical-lift plane from North Carolina to Arkansas, more than 1,000 miles away. sailors.
Ironically, pigs may never be a source of lungs that Rothblatt’s daughter might need. Indeed, the lungs are delicate and more susceptible to immune attacks. In 2018, the results were becoming clear. Each time the company added a new genetic modification to the pigs, the transplanted hearts and kidneys in the monkeys lasted an additional few weeks or months. But the lungs did not improve. Time and again, after being transplanted into monkeys, pig lungs would last for two weeks and then suddenly fail.
“I actually believe that there is no part of the body that cannot be 3D printed.”
To create lungs, Rothblatt is betting on a different approach, starting an “organ manufacturing” company that attempts to make lungs with 3D printers. That effort now operates out of a former textile factory in Manchester, New Hampshire, where researchers print detailed models of lungs from biopolymers. The eventual idea is to seed these structures with human cells, including (in one version of the technology) cells from the tissue of specific patients. These would be perfect matches, with no risk of immune rejection.
Last spring, Rothblatt unveiled a set of printed “lungs” that she called “the most complex 3D-printed object of any kind, anywhere, ever.” According to United, the spongy structure, the size of a football, includes 4,000 kilometers of capillary canals, detailed spaces mimicking lung sacs and a total of 44 trillion “voxels,” or individual printed locations. The print was made with a method called digital light processing, which works by shining a projector into a vat of polymer that solidifies wherever the light beams touch. It takes a while – three weeks – to print such a detailed structure, but the method allows any shape to be created, some not exceeding a single cell. Rothblatt likened the precision of the printing process to driving across the United States and never deviating more than a human hair’s width from the center line.
“I actually believe there’s no part of the body that can’t be 3D printed…including colons and brain tissue,” Rothblatt said when presenting the printed lung scaffolds in June. at a meeting in California.
Some scientists say bioprinting remains a research project and wonder if the lifeless polymers, as detailed as they are, should be compared to a real organ. “It’s a long way to go from that to a lung,” says Jennifer Lewis, who works on bioprinting at Harvard University. “I don’t want it to rain on the parade, and there’s been a lot of investment, so some smart minds see something in that. But from my point of view, it was quite publicized. Again, it’s scaffolding. It’s a nice shape, but it’s not a lung. Lewis and other researchers wonder to what extent it will be possible to breathe real life into printed structures. Sticking human cells into a scaffold does not guarantee that they will organize themselves into working tissue with the complex functions of a lung.
Rothblatt is aware of the skeptics and knows how difficult the technology is. She knows that others think it will never work. That doesn’t stop him. Instead, she sees it as her next chance to solve problems that others can’t. Speaking to surgeons this year, Rothblatt listed challenges ahead, including growing the trillions of cells that will be needed. “What I do know is that it doesn’t break any laws of physics,” she said, predicting that the first lungs made would be placed in a person’s chest cavity sometime this decade.
She ended her interview with a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one where an ape-man throws a bone upwards and it takes off like a space station circling the Earth. Except Rothblatt replaced a photo of herself piloting the zero-carbon electric plane that she says will one day deliver unlimited organs nationwide.