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3D printed device can save lives of babies with tracheobronchomalacia

Posted April 30, 2015

3D printed things are currently all over the news. They are used in space, in prototyping electronics and even making medical devices. Such life-saving devices sort of disappear in the broad discourse devoted to 3D printing hype. However, there is no denial that 3D printing is beneficial for these purposes as well. For example, scientists at University of Michigan Health System were able for the first time to treat severe tracheobronchomalacia with custom-designed airway splints.

Kaiba, age 3, is now a happy boy thanks to 3D printed tracheal splint. Image courtesy

Kaiba, age 3, is now a happy boy thanks to 3D printed tracheal splint. Image courtesy

Three babies that were treated with this new method, Kaiba, Garrett and Ian, suffer from a terminal form of tracheobronchomalacia. It causes the windpipe to periodically collapse and prevents normal breathing. There is no cure for this condition, life expectancies are short. These babies became first ever treated by new method and now are enjoying benefits of ground-breaking 3D printed devices that help keep their airways open, restored their breathing and saved their lives.

Before this procedure was created, babies with severe tracheobronchomalacia had little chance of surviving. Now, however, even though condition still has no cure, 3D printed devices promise brighter future for babies diagnosed with severe tracheobronchomalacia. Time has already passed since the procedures were done and results are very positive.

Devices were implanted in 3-month-old Kaiba, 5-month-old Ian and 16-month-old Garrett. Now Kaiba is an active, healthy 3-year-old in preschool. Doctors were ready to see complications such as tracheostomy, prolonged hospitalization, mechanical ventilation, cardiac and respiratory arrest, food malabsorption and discomfort, which are usually caused by conventional treatment. However, none of them were observed using these 3D printed devices. Patients did not need paralytics, narcotics or sedation and were able to come off of ventilators.

The devices are custom made. Each device is created individually for each patient according to CT scans of their tracheas. Then using the image-based computer model with laser-based 3D printing tracheal splint is produced. The splint is then sewn around airways of the patient, expanding the trachea and bronchus and giving it a skeleton to aid proper growth. The growth was monitored with CT and MRI scans and it is said that the device opened up to allow airway growth for all three patients. The splint is designed to be reabsorbed by the body over time.

Despite such positive results, it will still take a little bit of time until the method can be applied to its fullest. Senior author of the study, Glenn Green, said that “The potential of 3D-printed medical devices to improve outcomes for patients is clear, but we need more data to implement this procedure in medical practice.” Some of possible complications may not still be visible and further research is needed.

Richard G. Ohye, M.D., a doctor who performed the surgeries, said that these cases still provide the groundwork to potentially explore a clinical trial that could help other children with less-severe forms of tracheobronchomalacia in the future. Kaiba, who was the first to receive the treatment, now is a happy boy and splint is dissolving just how it is supposed to. Doctors expect that soon his trachea will be just like one of healthy children and there will be no signs of the tracheobronchomalacia that nearly killed him as a newborn.

Other children who received 3D printed tracheas are feeling well too, enjoying freedom of breathing. This method is truly promising, even though further research is going to be necessary. Hopefully, it will become one of the best ways to fight tracheobronchomalacia that takes lives of children at a very young age.


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