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Undergraduates Take Steps Toward 3D Printing Artificial Lungs

undergraduate research / mellon college of science
Madeline Evans, center, and Molly Flanagan, right, work in Professor Keith Cook's (left) Cardiopulmonary Engineering Group.

Madeline Evans knows the importance of a properly functioning set of lungs. As a member of Carnegie Mellon University's cross country and track and field teams, Evans, a junior, relies on her lungs to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream and fuel her ability to run. 

That, and Evans has spent her summer as an undergraduate researcher in Professor Keith Cook's Cardiopulmonary Engineering Group, a lab dedicated to helping patients with chronic lung disease.

According to a National Institutes of Health study released in 2012, there are 160,000 deaths per year in the US from chronic lung diseases. 

"The goal of our work is to help people live their best lives," Evans said. "Donor lungs are in such short supply. And of the lungs that are actually donated, there's only a small percentage that are actually accepted. Even those can be rejected by the body. Our goal is to create a bio-compatible lung that the body won't reject."

Evans and fellow junior Molly Flanagan both received Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) grants to work on 3D printing of biofabricated lungs. The fellowships provide students with $3,500 to spend the summer researching their proposed topic under a faculty adviser. Their work is also part of the Bioengineered Organs Initiative.

"The opportunity to conduct research in Keith Cook's lab has been an incredible supplement to what I've learned in the classroom and how it can be applied in real life," said Evans, who studies chemical engineering. "Keith is knowledgeable on everything in the field and helped guide our project."

Evans and Flanagan have spent their summer researching the types of materials used in printing and adapting a 3D printer with a fixture to print gelatinous materials. 

"We're focusing on the negative space," said Flanagan, a double major in biomedical engineering and material science and engineering. "Imagine 3D printing a popsicle stick, making a popsicle around it and taking the stick out because you just wanted the popsicle. That's what we're doing, but with gel materials."

The 3D printed lungs aren't meant to replace ailing lungs; rather, they are meant to supplement lungs compromised by disease. 

"I wasn't exposed to biomedical engineering until college," Flanagan said. "I knew I wanted to help people but didn't want to be a medical doctor. It felt like this great intersection of biology, which I loved, and making things. I just fell in love with it."

A full-scale, human-sized 3D printed lung may be years away. But Evans and Flanagan are laying the ground-work for potential advancements in the field. 

"Doing research has been such a great experience," Flanagan said. "I get to work hands-on in the lab, as opposed to reading things out of a book. It's such a lesson in patience and thinking outside the box."