Infant receives life-saving 3D printed windpipe

The six-week-old baby from Ohio had a rare condition that caused his airway to collapse.

When Kaiba Gionfriddo was six weeks old, his left bronchial tube collapsed and he suddenly stopped breathing. These life-threatening attacks happened every day. In early 2012, doctors implanted a 3-D printed tube to hold his airway open, and he hasn’t suffered an airway collapse since. Scientific American reports.

The trachea, or windpipe, comprises 20 rings of cartilage linked by muscle and connective tissue. It branches into two tubes, or bronchi, that each connect to a lung. With each inhalation, the airway tubes widen and lengthen.

But with a rare condition called tracheobronchomalacia, a portion of the airway is floppy. Treatment includes a stent, but that irritates the trachea, or a piece of the patient's rib as a splint around the trachea, but shape isn’t right.

Printing fully functioning organs and tissues has been a challenge, though it’s worked in the lab . However, the trachea is a simple ridged tube.

So, a University of Michigan team designed a custom sleeve to wrap around the outside of the floppy airway -- expanding as the airway grows and develops, while resisting spasms that pull inward and collapse the airway. They call it a "bioresorbable airway splint."

  1. Using images from a CT scan of Kaiba’s airways, they sculpted a 3-D printed cast (pictured above).
  2. From that they created the sleeve (pictured right).
  3. Finally, they sewed the tissue of Kaiba’s bronchus to the inside of the sleeve.

The splint was printed in layers of a biocompatible plastic called polycaprolactone:

After a few years inside a body the tube will dissolve -- it is made of the same material used for sutures -- and by that time his bronchus should have grown strong enough to function normally.

This is the first 3-D printed device implanted to aid tissue reconstruction. Printed cartilage and bone might be the first solutions to reach wide use.

The work was published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week.

[University of Michigan news via Scientific American]

Images: University of Michigan Health System

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