Indeed, just half a millennium after Johannes Gutenberg printed the bible, researchers designed and printed a 3D splint that saved the life of an infant born with severe tracheobronchomalacia – a serious birth defect that causes the airway to collapse.
And while similar surgeries have been performed with tissue donations and windpipes created from stem cells, this is the very first time 3D printing has been used to treat tracheobronchomalacia – at least in a live human. Previously, researchers tested 3D-printed, bioresorbable airway splints in porcine, or pig, animal models with severe, life-threatening tracheobronchomalacia.
“All of our work is physician inspired. Babies suffering from tracheobronchomalacia were brought to ear, nose and throat surgeons, but they didn’t have any treatment options,” said 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 (IGB). “They turned to us to engineer a cure.”
According to Wheeler, Kaiba (KEYE’-buh) Gionfriddo was six weeks old when he suddenly stopped breathing and turned blue at a restaurant with his parents. As a result of severe tracheobronchomalacia, his heart would often stop beating, and despite the aid of a mechanical ventilator, he had to be resuscitated daily by doctors.
April and Bryan Gionfriddo believed their son’s chance of survival was slim until Marc Nelson, a doctor at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio, told them researchers at the University of Michigan were testing airway splints similar to those used in Wheeler’s study. After obtaining emergency clearance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Hollister, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, and U-M associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology Glenn Green, used computer-guided lasers to print, stack, and fuse thin layers of plastic to make up Kaiba’s splint.
Ultimately, the splint was sewn around Kaiba’s airway to expand his collapsed bronchus and provide support for tissue growth. A slit in the side of the splint allows it to expand as Kaiba’s airway grows. In about three years, after Kaiba’s trachea has reconstructed itself, his body will reabsorb the splint as the PCL naturally degrades. His success story provides hope for other children born with this disorder, an estimated 1 in 2,100 births.
“It’s not very rare. It’s really not. I think it’s very rewarding to all of us to know that we are contributing to helping treat or even cure this disease,” Wheeler added.
“We have a reputation for being excellent in this area. We would like to capitalize on the expertise and the facilities that we have here to continue to conduct life-saving research. I’m hoping that this story will encourage more people come to us and say ‘Hey, we’d like to develop this model.’”