Bioengineers Are Closer Than Ever To Lab-Grown Lungs

By Robbie Gonzalez

The lungs in Joan Nichols’ lab have been keeping her up at night. Like children, they’re delicate, developing, and in constant need of attention, which is why she and her team at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston’s Lung Lab have spent the last several years taking turns driving to the lab at 1:00 am to check that the bioreactors housing their experimental organs are not leaking, that the nutrient-rich soup supporting the lungs is still flowing, or that the budding sacs of tissues and veins have not succumbed to contamination. That last risk was a persistent source of anxiety: Building a lung requires suspending the thing for weeks on end in warm, wet, fungus friendly conditions—to say nothing of the subtropical climate of Galveston itself. “In this city, mold will grow on people if they sit still long enough,” Nichols says.

But their vigilance has paid off. In 2014, Nichols’ team became the first to bioengineer a human lung. A year later, the researchers implanted a single lab-built lung into a pig—another first. They’ve grown three more pig lungs since, using cells from their intended recipients, and transplanted each of them successfully without the use of immunosuppressive drugs. Taken together, the four porcine procedures, which the researchers describe in this week’s issue of Science Translational Medicine, are a major step toward growing human organs that are built to-order, using a transplant recipient’s own cells.

Bioengineering a lung is a bit like modeling with clay: Like a sculptor uses a wire armature to lend his creation form, Nichols’ team grew the tissues and blood vessels of their lab-grown lungs atop a framework of tough, flexible proteins. The researchers got that scaffolding secondhand, harvesting whole organs from dead pigs and bathing them in a concoction of sugar and detergent to strip them of the cells and blood of their previous owners like a coat of varnish from an old table.

Nichols calls the milky mass that remains the organ’s skeleton: It’s made mostly of collagen, which lends the lung strength, and elastin, which makes it flexible. Each scaffold goes into a bioreactor—one of the containers Nichols and her team built from scratch to house each of the proteinous blobs. The earliest models were little more than spruced-up fish tanks; the latest iterations still incorporate parts purchased from Home Depot.

Its humble origins notwithstanding, each bioreactor plays a vital role. “It lets you provide the organ with growth factors, media, mechanical stimulation,” says pediatric anesthesiologist Joaquin Cortiella, who co-leads the Lung Lab with Nichols. Its job is similar to that of a placenta, allowing the lung to develop in a warm, cozy, nutrient-rich environment for 30 days before it moves to the thoracic cavity of a living, breathing pig, nestled neatly beside the animal’s original lung.

Growing a lung in a bioreactor for a month is a significant accomplishment, says bioengineer Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, director of the Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering at Columbia University, who was unaffiliated with the study. In an email to WIRED, she said that previous lab-grown lungs have spent a lot less time in culture before being transplanted. The extra time allowed Nichols’ and Cortiella’s bioengineered lungs to grow more blood vessels, the underdevelopment of which “is a major current limitation of lung survival,” said Vunjak-Novakovic. In past studies involving smaller animals, transplant recipients have died within a matter of hours due to fluid accumulation in the lungs. By contrast, the vasculature in Nichols’ and Cortiella’s organs allowed the pigs who received them to survive as long as two months post-transplant without any observable complications.

It’s unclear how the pigs would have fared beyond two months. The four animals in this study were euthanized 10 hours, two weeks, one month, and two months post-surgery, so the researchers could examine how each bioengineered lung had developed inside its recipient following transplantation. All signs pointed to the lungs integrating seamlessly—they continued to develop blood vessels and lung tissues and were colonized by the microbes specific to each animal’s native lung microbiome, all without respiratory symptoms or rejection by the recipient’s immune system.

A big lingering question is how well the bioengineered lungs deliver oxygen. Though each of the pigs had normal amounts of the stuff pumping through their bodies, that could have been the work of the animal’s original lung. The researchers worried the implanted organs were too underdeveloped to risk stopping each research animal from breathing on its original lung, to test the lab-grown one in isolation. That’ll have to wait for future experiments, which Cortiella and Nichols say will involve pigs living for a year or more on their transplanted organs.

Such studies will also require more animals. “It will be interesting to see how robust this technology is, as the number of animals was very low,” said Vunjak-Novakovic. Still, the results are promising. With sufficient funding, Nichols and Cortiella think they could be transplanting bioengineered lungs into humans within the decade.

But first come more experiments—and better, more reliable research facilities. High on Nichols’ wish list is a clean room for the bioreactors, accessible only to researchers clad head-to-toe in bunny suits. She’d like more automated equipment too, which would translate to less manual labor and fewer opportunities for error. And of course, she’s looking forward to the day when she and her colleagues can monitor their lungs remotely via a livestream. Babysitting bioengineered lungs may always be a 24-hour job, but at least with a video monitor the members of the Lung Lab could work remotely.

You are invited! CF Transplant MiniCon

Another virtual event for our adult CF community!

About CF MiniCon: Transplant
This virtual event will explore all stages of the transplant process and allow those who are considering a transplant, preparing for transplant, or post-transplant to connect with others, learn more about the process, and share their experiences.

The CF MiniCon will feature a keynote presentation followed by storytelling panel discussions and small group video breakouts.

Check out the agenda at https://cff.swoogo.com/minicontx/agenda and register now, https://cff.swoogo.com/minicontx.

This event is open to adults with CF, their family members, and caregivers age 18 or older.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 15
6:30 – 10 p.m. ET | 5:30 – 9 p.m. CT | 4:30 – 8 p.m. MT | 3:30 – 7 p.m. PT

The Hospital Comfort Kit Is Now Available!

The Hospital Comfort Kit Is Now Available!

When Rebecca Poole was admitted to the hospital in December 2014, she had no idea that she would not be discharged for 219 days. Her husband Ray focused daily on what he could do to make her more comfortable. Friends and family would ask what they could do to help and at the time he didn’t have an Continue reading The Hospital Comfort Kit Is Now Available!

Jerry Cahill’s CF Podcast: The Pre-Transplant Process with Dr. Emily DiMango

The latest video in The Path Forward with Cystic Fibrosis series, Dr. Emily DiMango, Director of the Gunnar Esiason Adult CF Program at Columbia University Medical Center, discusses the lung transplant process through the lens of a CF doctor.

First, she reviews the importance of CF patients participating in drug trials in order to start life-changing medications sooner. She then answers the following questions:

· What does pre-transplant management look like for a CF patient?
· When is the right time to be referred to the list?
· What is the referral process like?

Finally, she reiterates the importance of well-rounded treatment that includes physical health, nutritional health, and emotional health.

This video was originally posted on JerryCahill.com

Ex Vivo Lung Perfusion for Transplant

Cystic Fibrosis Podcast 186:
In the latest edition of The Path Forward with Cystic Fibrosis, Dr. Frank D’Ovidio – the Surgical Director of the Lung Transplant Project and Director of the Ex Vivo Lung Perfusion Program at CUMC – explains exactly what the Ex Vivo program is and what its end goals are.
Because so many donor lungs are damaged at the time of death, only 20-30% of donated lungs are usable for transplantation. The ex vivo lung perfusion (EVLP) is a process of evaluating and preparing donor lungs outside the body prior to transplant surgery. In EVLP, the lungs are warmed to normal body temperature, flushed of donor blood, inflammatory cells and potentially harmful biologic factors, and treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory agents.
Eventually, as this process is perfected, it could expand the available donor pool by restoring and repairing donor lungs that have sustained damage and eventually create a sort of ‘ICU for organs.’

This video podcast was made possible through an unrestricted educational grant from Columbia University Medial Center and the Lung Transplant Project.

CF Patients, Especially Post-transplant, at High Risk of Gastrointestinal Cancers, Study Finds

By Patricia Inacio

Patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) are at higher-than-average risk of developing gastrointestinal cancers, especially those who underwent a lung transplant, a new study shows.

Transplant patients with CF were found in this retrospective study to have a five-times greater risk of gastrointestinal cancer than those who have not had a transplant, the researchers found, emphasizing a need for careful screening for small intestine and colon cancers particularly, but also for biliary tract and pancreatic cancers.

The study, “Risk of gastrointestinal cancers in patients with cystic fibrosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” was published in the journal The Lancet Oncology.

More effective therapies developed in the last 30 years has significantly improved life expectancy for CF patients, with 70 percent of all patients in developed countries expected to reach adulthood. Treatments now in use range from pancreatic enzymes, to antibiotics targeting the bacteria Pseudomonas (a major cause of CF lung infections), to lung transplant surgeries.

But improvements in life expectancy — prior to 1980, most CF patients died in infancy — has brought an awareness of comorbidities in this population. Reports of cancers in CF patients have also risen since 1980, the study notes.

An international team of researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies published in six different databases — PubMed, Medline, Google Scholar, Scopus, Embase, and Cochrane — to investigate the incidence of CF and gastrointestinal cancers. Additional sources included scientific meetings and studies mentioned in the bibliographies of selected studies.

Their search identified six cohort studies including a total of 99,925 CF patients with a gastrointestinal cancer diagnosis. The studies included those who had undergone a lung transplant and those who had not.

Results showed a significantly higher risk of gastrointestinal cancer in CF patients than in the general population, including site-specific cancers — namely, those of the small intestine, colon, biliary tract (the tubes transporting bile produced by the liver into the small intestine), and the pancreas.

In lung transplant patients, the overall risk a gastrointestinal cancer was five times higher than those without a transplant.

Compared to the public-at-large, all CF patients had 20 times higher risk of cancer of the small intestine, and 10 times higher for colon cancer.

“Our results support the CF Foundation Task Force recommendation to initiate colon cancer screening at age 40 years, with repeat screening every 5 years thereafter and 3-year surveillance intervals,” the researchers wrote, recommending the small intestine also be examined in the colonoscopy given.

They also proposed a screening strategy for biliary tract and pancreatic cancers with specific imaging techniques, and a blood test for a cancer protein (antigen 19-9) to be performed every two-to-three years for 40-year-old patients who have not had a transplant, and every one-to-two years who those who have.

For original article please visit CF News Today. 

I’m on the transplant list, now what?

In Jerry Cahill’s latest edition of The Path Forward with Cystic Fibrosis, Dr. Selim Arcasoy from Columbia University Medical Center discusses what happens once a patient is on the transplant list.
The first three major steps are:
  1. Create a strict exercise program with the hospital rehab center and integrate it into the patient’s schedule.
  2. Meet with a nutritionist in order to maintain proper weight.
  3. Educate! Meet with the care team in order to understand the entire process – both pre and post transplant.
The transplant process is a long one – and thoroughly detailed – in order to increase the chances of success. Tune in to learn more from Dr. Arcasoy.

This video podcast was made possible through an unrestricted educational grant from Columbia University Medial Center and the Lung Transplant Project.

A Letter To My Donor

Jerry Unplugged: A blog by Jerry Cahill

Six years ago, on April 18, 2012 I received the ultimate gift – a healthy set of lungs.  

This is my transplant story and finally, an open letter to my donor Chris who gave me a second chance at life. 

On April 17th I was called to Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) in New York City. They had a perfect set of lungs on paper for me and simultaneously while I was on my way in, a team went to harvest and evaluate these lungs, which were located out of state.  It’s a bit of coordination for the doctors to determine the health of the lungs. Were they damaged? Were there contusions or other imperfections? Were these lungs meant for me? The team at CUMC would make the final decision on whether they were a match or not. It was the sixth time that I’d been called in for the transplant, so I wasn’t getting too excited, but I also didn’t let myself get too down. This time the news was good – the transplant was a go! Before I could blink, my team began to prep me. My worn out, diseased lungs were about to be replaced with clear, healthy lungs. My life was about to be forever changed.  

Before I went into surgery, my lung function was at a dismal 19% and I spent eighteen hours a day pumping myself with medications and intravenous antibiotics to stay alive.  This wasn’t me. I was a coach, an athlete and an advocate for living a healthy life with cystic fibrosis. This wasn’t healthy! My quality of life was non-existent, and quite frankly, I was embarrassed each time I struggled to walk up a flight of stairs.  

As I was wheeled into the operating room, I remember saying to my family, “Go into the waiting room and wait. I’ll see you later.” What was I thinking?   

When I woke up I truly was a changed man.  It was a foreign feeling  for me to have clear lungs and when I took my first breaths I told my surgeon, “these lungs are too big – I think you stuffed them in.” This wasn’t a joke, I was being serious.  I was grateful and knew this wouldn’t just be a second chance at life for me, but for my donor Chris.  We were in this together now. 

The last six years have been quite a journey – and that’s very much how I view life – as a journey.  I’ve written letters to my donor’s family each year, but they haven’t responded yet. I wholeheartedly respect their decision, but I felt strongly compelled to write an open letter to this amazing man Chris, who saved my life. 

Dear Chris……

To read Jerry’s letter to Chris, please click here

Cystic Fibrosis Podcast 180: The Pre-Transplant Process

In Jerry Cahill’s latest podcast series, The Path Forward with Cystic Fibrosis, we hear from Dr. Selim Arcasoy from Columbia University Medical Center. He discusses the pre-transplant process by covering the following topics:
  • When should a CF patient consider a lung transplant?
    • When lung function decreases to 30% or below
    • When there is an increased infection resistance
    • When exacerbations resulting in ICU hospital stays become frequent
    • When a patient experiences frequent lung bleeds and collapse
  • What is the transplant listing process?
  • What is the transplant evaluation process?
  • What are some testing and evaluation obstacles, both mental and psychosocial?
  • What is dual listing?
  • What happens when you are actively listed?

This video podcast was made possible through an unrestricted educational grant from Columbia University Medial Center and the Lung Transplant Project.

Stream “Up for Air” Documentary this Month for Free!

Jerry Cahill‘s documentary, “Up for Air”, provides viewers with an inside look at his personal fight for survival while living with #CF. During national #DonateLifeMonth (4/1 – 4/30) use the code: BEANORGANDONOR to watch the documentary for FREE! Tap the link to watch: https://vimeo.com/137872395

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