Entrepreneur dreams of unlimited human organ factory
United said it is currently building a new germ-resistant pig facility, which will be ready in 2023, and support clinical trials starting next year. It’s not the great commercial pig factory shown in Rothblatt’s architectural rendering, but it is a stepping stone towards it. Ultimately, Rothblatt believes, a single facility can supply the entire country with organs, transporting them in an all-electric ambulance. Over the summer, she announced, an airline company she invested in, Beta Technologyflew a vertical lift electric plane from North Carolina to Arkansas, more than 1,000 knots.
Ironically, pigs may never be the source of the lungs that Rothblatt’s daughter may need. That’s because the lungs are fragile and more susceptible to immune attack. By 2018, the results had become clear. Each time the company adds a new gene edit to a pig, the transplanted heart and kidney into the monkey will last several weeks or months. But the lungs did not improve. Again and again, after being transplanted into monkeys, pig lungs would last for two weeks and then suddenly fail.
“I truly 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 a company that “manufacturs organs.” trying to create a lung with a 3D printer. That effort is currently being carried out at a former textile factory in Manchester, New Hampshire, where researchers print detailed lung models from biopolymers. The ultimate idea is to seed these structures with human cells, which include (in one version of the technology) cells grown from the tissues of specific patients. These would be perfect matches, with no risk of immune rejection.
Last spring, Rothblatt disclosure a set of printed “lungs” that she calls “the most complex 3D printed object of any kind, anywhere, ever.” According to United, the porous structure, about the size of a soccer ball, includes 4,000 kilometers of capillary channels, a detailed space simulating a lung sac, and a total of 44 trillion “voxels,” or individually printed locations. The printing process is done using a method called digital light processing, which works by pointing the projector at a barrel of solidified polymer wherever the light beam hits. It takes a while—three weeks—to print a detailed structure like this, but this method allows for any shape to be created, a number no larger than a single cell. Rothblatt compared the accuracy of the printing process to driving across the United States and never deviated more than the width of a human hair from the centerline.
“I truly believe there is no part of the body that cannot be 3D printed… not even the colon and brain tissue,” said Rothblatt when presenting the printed lung frames in June at a meeting in California.
Some scientists say bioprinting is still a research project and question whether lifeless polymers, no matter how detailed, should be compared to a real organ. “There’s a long way to go from there to the lungs,” said Jennifer Lewis, who works with bioprinting at Harvard University. “I didn’t want rain during the parade, and there was considerable investment, so some bright minds see something there. But from my point of view, that’s pretty much exaggerated. Again, it’s a scaffold. It’s a nice shape, but it’s not a lung.” Lewis and other researchers question how feasible it is to bring real life to printed structures. Attaching human cells to a scaffold does not guarantee that they will organize into functioning tissue with the complex functions of the lungs.
Rothblatt is aware of doubts and knows how difficult technology can be. She knows that others think it will never work. That doesn’t stop her. Instead, she sees it as the next opportunity to solve problems that others can’t. In a speech to surgeons this year, Rothblatt listed the challenges ahead — including growing the trillions of cells that would be needed. “What I do know is that doing so doesn’t violate any laws of physics,” she said, predicting that the first manufactured lung will be placed in the human thoracic cavity within this decade.
She ended her talk with a scene from 2001: Space Adventures, where an ape-man throws a bone on top of it and it will fly like a space station orbiting the Earth. Except Rothblatt replaced a photo of herself flying a carbon-free electric plane that she believes will one day transport unlimited organs around the country.