The list of human body parts successfully being replaced with 3D printed analogs is growing longer:
In a medical first, doctors used plastic particles and a 3-D laser printer to create an airway splint to save the life of a baby boy who used to stop breathing nearly every day.
In the case of Kaiba (KEYE’-buh) Gionfriddo, doctors didn’t have a moment to spare. Because of a birth defect, the little Ohio boy’s airway kept collapsing, causing his breathing to stop and often his heart, too. Doctors in Michigan had been researching artificial airway splints but had not implanted one in a patient yet.
In a single day, they “printed out” 100 tiny tubes, using computer-guided lasers to stack and fuse thin layers of plastic instead of paper and ink to form various shapes and sizes. The next day, with special permission from the Food and Drug Administration, they implanted one of these tubes in Kaiba, the first time this has been done.
Suddenly, a baby that doctors had said would probably not leave the hospital alive could breathe normally for the first time. He was 3 months old when the operation was done last year and is nearly 19 months old now. He is about to have his tracheotomy tube removed; it was placed when he was a couple months old and needed a breathing machine. And he has not had a single breathing crisis since coming home a year ago.
“He’s a pretty healthy kid right now,” said Dr. Glenn Green, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the operation was done. It’s described in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.
Independent experts praised the work and the potential for 3-D printing to create more body parts to solve unmet medical needs.
“It’s the wave of the future,” said Dr. Robert Weatherly, a pediatric specialist at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. “I’m impressed by what they were able to accomplish.”
So far, only a few adults have had trachea, or windpipe transplants, usually to replace ones destroyed by cancer. The windpipes came from dead donors or were lab-made, sometimes using stem cells. Last month, a 2-year-old girl born without a windpipe received one grown from her own stem cells onto a plastic scaffold at a hospital in Peoria, Ill.
Kaiba had a different problem — an incompletely formed bronchus, one of the two airways that branch off the windpipe like pant legs to the lungs. About 2,000 babies are born with such defects each year in the United States and most outgrow them by age 2 or 3, as more tissue develops.