3-D printers are a unique type of technology since organizations are constantly finding new uses for the devices. What started as an almost novelty item has morphed into a useful tool to progress medical treatment – like these prosthetic limbs for a disabled dog. I recently learned about a wonderful way 3-D printers have been used to create splints in airways of children with tracheobronchomalacia (TBM). Children with TBM are often misdiagnosed as having treatment-resistant asthma, but TBM actually affects breathing by softening the windpipe, which eventually causes the airway to collapse, and leads to breathing failure. The condition is rare – affecting 1 in 2,200 babies, but most grow out of it by age 3. With pediatric TBM, the cartilage supporting the airway strengthens as children age, but in some severe cases, TBM can be life-threatening.
Researchers at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital created a 3-D printed splint to support the airways of children with TBM; three children participated in the study and are doing quite well with no complications from the treatment. Previously, the only way to treat severe cases of tracheobronchomalacia was through high-risk surgeries that often resulted in cardiac and respiratory arrest.
The 3-D printed device supports pediatric patients’ airways long enough so that eventually their airways strengthen on their own. The device is made of biodegradable polyester called polycaprolactone, and the body reabsorbs the device after about three years. Children using the device no longer needed ventilators; paralytic, narcotic and sedating drugs; and no longer had to be fed intravenously. Researchers are awaiting approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to move forward with establishing the 3-D splint as the go-to treatment for TBM.