We all know that 3D printing is going to be a life saver, like when we need a new part for the motorcycle or coffeemaker. But 3D printing is now saving lives – literally. A group of resourceful doctors at the University of Michigan used 3D printing technology to give a young baby boy a stint for his weakened trachea. Without the stint the boy’s prognosis was to never leave the hospital – and that was the best case scenario.
Kaiba is a young boy who suffers from a condition called tracheaobronchomalacia in which the cartilage in the trachea is soft, causing it to collapse and make it difficult or impossible to breath. The rare condition – affecting only about 1 in 2,200 babies – showed itself one evening when Kaiba was just six weeks old. He stopped breathing while his parents were dining at a restaurant. The terrified parents saw their son turn blue and rushed him to the hospital.
University of Michigan professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, Scott Hollister, and physician Glenn Green 3D printed an implant that kept Kaiba’s airway open, and allowed the boy to breath again.
Their design was guided by a high-resolution CT scan of Kaiba’s trachea and bronchus. With computer-aided design they were able to make a splint that was tailored specifically to Kaiba’s collapsed airways. The splint was made of a polyester called polycaprolactone that, according to the team, has never been used before in this manner. Normally such an invasive procedure would have to go through the normal regulatory FDA avenues. But given the urgency of Kaiba’s situation, the FDA fast-tracked the splint’s approval.
The implantation surgery took place Feburary 9, 2012. The splint was sewn to the airways, giving them the support they needed to expand. Over time the splint will act as a scaffold along which Kaiba’s airways will grow. The effect was immediate – Kaiba’s lungs began to fill with air. In about three years time the biodegradable splint will be reabsorbed by the body. That’s ideal timing, as the airways are expected to take about the same amount of time to grow strong enough to function properly. A ventilator helped Kaiba to breath for the next three weeks. Since then, his breathing has been trouble-free.
“For Scott and I, Kaiba’s case is definitely the highlight of our careers so far,” Green wrote in a piece about the operation. “To actually build something that can save a person’s life? It’s a tremendous feeling.”
Green goes on to mention that he and Hollister are already adapting their 3D printing procedure to print other types of tissue including an ear and a nose. Like Green and Hollister, physicians are increasingly teaming up with engineers and computer experts to create their own solutions to meet transplant demand. 3D printers have already been used to create bone models to plan operations, and just a few months ago one group printed an ear and then attached to the patient. Dentists benefit too, making custom-made crowns for patients in a few hours.
Most children with tracheaobronchomalacia outgrow it by age 2 or 3, but Kaiba’s case was severe. His survival attests to the power of using new technology to solve old problems, and the impact 3D printing will have in the future.