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Lab-Made Lungs

Cross-disciplinary research offers insight into deadly disease

Tuberculosis, or “TB,” infects almost nine million people globally each year—yet scientists still know relatively little about the bacteria that cause the disease, which can destroy human lung tissue.

“TB is really hard to observe in the lab,” says Bree Aldridge, a biological investigator at Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. “It’s a tricky bacteria to grow, and it behaves differently in a petri dish than it would in the human body. You really need to watch it as it develops in the lungs to understand it.”

Observing tiny microbes as they grow inside a living person isn’t possible, so Aldridge is taking a different approach to studying the disease: She’s teaming with biomedical engineer David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor in Engineering, to create artificial lung tissue that she can study in the lab.

“Ultimately, we want to build a piece of ‘fake lung’ that we can infect with TB,” she says. “That way, we’ll be able to watch how the bacteria affect lung tissue in real time under the microscope—something we would never be able to do in a live human being.”

To accomplish this feat, Aldridge and Kaplan are using proteins derived from silk to build a spongy “scaffold” that mimics the properties of real lung tissue. The pair then grow lung cells and immune cells called macrophages inside the scaffold, forming a three-dimensional structure that is remarkably similar to a piece of living lung.

At the moment, the researchers are fine-tuning their creation, which is about the size of a postage stamp, and soon plan to infect the tissue with TB bacteria to study how the disease progresses.

Aldridge says these observations could provide unprecedented levels of detail about how the bacteria grow inside a person’s lungs, offering clues to new methods of treating the disease.