How To Save A Life With 3D Printing

Matthew Wheeler, a University of Illinois professor of animal sciences and member of the Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering research theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology, holds a 3-D-printed, bioresorbable airway splint used to treat tracheobronchomalacia in porcine models.

Many weird and wonderful uses for 3D printing have emerged recently, but perhaps none more poignant than its recent role in saving the life of a child.

The young child in question, Kaiba Gionfriddo, was just six weeks old when he stopped breaching at a restaurant with his parents due to tracheobronchomalacia, a birth condition that causes the collapse of the trachea, which affects an estimated 1 in 2,100 births.

Due to the severity of Kaiba’s condition options appeared limited, until doctors decided to try a novel solution using a bioresorbable airway splint, created using 3D printing.

Pig models

Instrumental to this was the work of Matthew Wheeler and his research team who were testing 3D-printed splints on pig models at the time. The research is explained in more detail by Wheeler below:

"If the promise of tissue engineering is going to be realized, our translational research must be 'translated' from our laboratory and experimental surgery suite to the hospital and clinic. The large-animal model is the roadway to take this device from the bench top to the bedside."

For this work Wheeler enlisted the help of Scott Hollister, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, who designed and printed the splints using a CT scan of a pig's trachea.

Next Glenn Green, U-M associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology, carried out a successful surgical procedure to place the splint in the pig suffering from tracheobronchomalacia. Once the surgery was carried out, the animal no longer exhibited the symptoms associated with the condition.

First procedure of its kind

When Kaiba found himself in trouble, Hollister and Green used what they had learnt from

Wheeler’s tests and set about creating an airway splint for the suffering child.

The splint itself was built up from stacks of thin sheets of polycaprolactone plastic fused together, after approval was given by the Food and Drug Administration.

In the first procedure of its kind anywhere in the world, the custom made splint created from 3D printing was sewn around Kaiba’s bronchus in order to provide support for the child’s body to grow and recover.

In around 3 years, once Kaiba’s trachea has recovered, the life-saving split will simply be reabsorbed in the body.

Below, Kaiba’s parents give their account of the story, as Hollister and Green explain the procedure in more detail.

Not only is this a touching story about the survival of a child against the odds, but it is a wonderful example of the scientific community working together, utilising new technology, to do something great. 

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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