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When a car engine begins to have problems, mechanics usually overhaul the engine, that is, they adjust certain parts so that the engine can run more miles. Scientists at Columbia University discovered that it’s possible to do a very similar process with lungs.

Lungs are feats of engineering wonder, with over 40 types of cells embedded in a delicate but supple matrix that continuously pumps oxygen into the bloodstream over an area the size of a tennis field. Their exquisite tree-like structure optimizes gas exchange efficiency, but unfortunately it also makes engineering healthy replacement lungs a near impossible task.

The problem. In the past, scientists would remove the sick and inflamed cells and reseed the empty matrix with healthy ones. The problem is that in addition to being a difficult procedure, many times blood vessels are often completely destroyed during the process. And, without blood to deliver nutrients, the process fails.

“Rather than remove all the cells from a donor lung, I thought, what if we gently clean out only the diseased cells in the airway without touching blood circulation,” said Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, from Columbia University. Her team went ahead and used healthy human epithelium cells – and not the ones from the blood system like before –, which formed the lung’s airways to insert in rat lungs. The foreign cells homed to the correct location, attached and thrived.

The study was published in August 2017 under the name “radically new approach” for bioengineering lungs: making scaffolds with blood vessels intact. “Since lung failure often stems from diseased epithelium cells,” says the author of the study Valerio Dorrello, “this new method allows us to regenerate lungs by treating just the injured cells”. Click here for the full article.