Three children, Kaiba, Ian, and Garrett, were diagnosed with severe cases of tracheobronchomalacia shortly after birth. The baby’s windpipes would periodically collapse and prevent normal breathing. There was no cure. Garrett had to spend the first year of his life too sick to eat or breath by himself, confined to hospital ventilator setups and fed through his veins the whole while. Ian experienced his own heart stop for the first time before reaching even six months of age. Kaiba turned blue in his mother’s arms shortly after being born when his lungs just couldn’t get the air for him to sustain himself.
The University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital has been working to find a cure for their tracheobronchomalacia, and the best solution came from 3D printing. In medicine, a stent is a device which can be inserted into a blood vessel or other internal duct in order to expand it for the prevention or alleviation of a blockage. Traditionally, such devices are fabricated from metal mesh and remain in the body permanently or until removed through further surgical intervention. They can also hold risk in how a body will react to the foreign materials imbedded within it. A bioresorbable stent serves the same purpose, but is made out of a material that won’t be perceived as harmful to the body and can be absorbed in the body.
These tools have been around for some time, but safe materials that can be absorbed into the body are only half of a solution to specialized medical needs such as those in this case. The rest of the problem lies in how staggeringly different each body can be. Kaiba, Ian, and Garrett each will have needed entirely different implants to help them breathe, and the manufacture of a single unit of a specialized tool such as this can be incredibly expensive. This is why the researchers working this problem at Mott fell on 3D printing as their solution. Utilizing 3D scans taken of the boy’s inner airways, the Mott doctors will have generated CAD (computer integrated design) files of fitting stents to be printed with specialized machines that use their bioresorbable materials. When the devices were in place through surgery, Garrett and Kaiba could finally take their first breaths without machines, and Ian and his family could live the rest of their lives without worrying that his heart would stop at any moment. Innovations like this one make 3D printing a lifesaving technological field. In the future, we can expect to see more bio printers that can print in acceptable tissue-like materials and hold up in use within a body, because the lifesaving applications aren’t limited to these kids or this complication. Work like this will continue to help people with many problems over the next few years and on.