The entrepreneur dreams of a factory of unlimited human organs

Print lungs

United says it is now building a new germ-free pig facility, which will be ready in 2023 and will support a clinical trial starting next year. It’s not the fabulous commercial pig factory shown in Rothblatt’s architectural rendering, but it’s a stepping stone to it. Ultimately, Rothblatt believes, a single facility could provide organs for the entire country, via all-electric air ambulances. In the summer, she claims, an airline company she invested in, Beta Technologiesflew an electric vertical lift airplane from North Carolina to Arkansas, more than 1,000 nautical miles.

Ironically, pigs may never be a source of the lungs Rothblatt’s daughter needs. That’s because lungs are delicate and more susceptible to immune attacks. In 2018, the results became clear. Each time the company added a new gene edit to the pigs, the hearts and kidneys transplanted into monkeys would last a few weeks or months longer. But the lungs did not improve. Time after time, after being transplanted into monkeys, the pig lungs would last two weeks and then suddenly fail.

“I actually believe there’s no part of the body that can’t be 3D printed.”

Martin Rothblatt

To make lungs, Rothblatt is betting on a different approach, creating an “organ manufacturing” company that is trying to make lungs with 3D printers. That effort is now being conducted from a former textile mill in Manchester, New Hampshire, where researchers are printing detailed models of lungs from biopolymers. The ultimate idea is to seed these structures with human cells, including (in one version of the technology) cells grown from the tissue of specific patients. These would be perfect matches, without the risk of immune rejection.

Last spring, Rothblatt revealed a set of printed “lungs” she called “the most complex 3D-printed object ever seen anywhere.” According to United, the spongy structure, about the size of a football, includes 4,000 kilometers of capillary channels, detailed spaces that mimic lung sacs, and a total of 44 trillion “voxels,” or individually printed locations. The printing was done using a method called digital light processing, which works by directing a projector into a vessel of polymer that solidifies where the light rays meet. It takes a while – three weeks – to print a structure this detailed, but the method makes it possible to create any shape, some no larger than a single cell. Rothblatt compared the precision of the printing process to driving across the US and never deviating from the centerline by more than the width of a human hair.



“I actually believe there isn’t any part of the body that can’t be 3D printed…including colon and brain tissue,” Rothblatt said while presenting the printed lung scaffolds at a June meeting in California.

Some scientists say bioprinting remains a research project and question whether the lifeless polymers, however detailed, should be compared to a real organ. “It’s a long way to go from that to a lung,” says Jennifer Lewis, who works with bioprinting at Harvard University. “I don’t want rain on the parade, and there has been a lot of investment, so some smart minds see something in that. But from my perspective, that’s pretty hyped. Again, it’s a jetty. It’s a nice shape, but it’s not a lung.” Lewis and other researchers wonder how feasible it will be to really breathe life into the printed structures. Placing human cells on a scaffold is no guarantee that they will organize into working tissue with the complex functions of a lung.

Rothblatt knows the doubters and knows how difficult the technique is. She knows that other people think it will never work. That doesn’t stop her. Instead, she sees it as her next chance to solve problems other people can’t. Speaking to surgeons this year, Rothblatt rattled off the list of future challenges, including growing the trillions of cells that will be needed. “What I do know is that this doesn’t break any laws of physics,” she said, predicting that the first manufactured lungs would be placed in a person’s chest cavity this decade.

She ended her conversation with a scene out 2001: A space odyssey, the one where an ape-man throws up a bone and it flies like a space station orbiting the earth. Only Rothblatt replaced a photo of herself piloting the carbon-free electric plane she believes will one day deliver unlimited organs across the country.

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