Healthcare Technology Featured Article

May 23, 2013

University of Michigan Doctors Use 3D Printer to Save an Infant's Life

Otolaryngologists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have enabled an infant boy to breathe thanks to 3D printing technology.

Kaiba Gionfriddo was born with a defect that caused his airway to collapse. In most people, air enters the mouth and passes through the trachea. The trachea branches into two large tubes, or bronchi, which direct air into each lung. Kaiba was born with one incomplete bronchus.

About 2,000 children are born with this defect each year. In many cases, the defect corrects itself by the time a child is two or three years old. In tragic cases, parents don't even know the defect exists until their baby goes into respiratory arrest. For example, Kaiba's parents discovered the problem when Kaiba stopped breathing at six weeks old while the family was dining at a restaurant.

After the incident, little Kaiba would stop breathing nearly every day, which often caused him to go into cardiac arrest. Doctors described his condition as "grave," and many told Kaiba's parents, April and Bryan Gionfriddo, that their baby would not survive.

Then, Dr. Marc Nelson of Akron Children's Hospital suggested that the Gionfriddos reach out to the University of Michigan, where researchers were investigating the use of airway splints made of biodegradable polyester.

Few people of any age have had windpipe replacement surgery. Some adult patients have undergone trachea transplants, usually because their windpipes were destroyed by cancer. The transplanted tracheas came either from donors or from stem cells grown in a lab.

In April, a two-year-old girl received a windpipe transplant at a hospital in Peoria, Ill. The trachea was made from her stem cells and placed in plastic scaffolding.

For little Kaiba, doctors at the University of Michigan used a 3D printer to print out 100 tiny tubes. The printer used miniature lasers to fuse and stack thin layers of plastic to create tubes of various shapes and sizes.

After printing the tubes, Kaiba's doctors obtained permission from the FDA to implant one into Kaiba's windpipe. At the time, Kaiba was three months old. Today, he is well at 19 months of age.

Doctors had fitted Kaiba with a tracheotomy tube when he was just two months old and still using a breathing machine. They recently removed the tracheotomy tube because Kaiba had had no problems with his new airway since the surgery.

The tube will degrade naturally within about three years. At that time, healthy tissue will have grown around it to repair the bronchial defect. Kaiba's case is written up in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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