University doctors use 3-D printing to save child's life

By Will Greenberg, Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 24, 2013

The partnership of two University doctors saved the life of a young boy in a desperate situation with the use of groundbreaking new medical technology.

Kaiba was born in Akron, Ohio with a birth defect called tracheobronchomalacia, a condition causing his airway to collapse frequently, often leaving him completely unable to breathe. His condition eventually became critical and he was rushed to the University of Michigan Medical Center where doctors Glenn Green and Scott Hollister used 3-D printing to construct a splint to hold Kaiba’s airway open.

Green, associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology, said the thinking behind Kaiba’s cure was finding a way to temporarily replace the trachea.

“Kaiba had the worst tracheobronchomalacia that I’d seen in an infant,” Green said.

About a day after Kaiba was brought to Ann Arbor, Hollister, associate professor of oral surgery and professor of biomedical engineering, was able to build a splint over Kaiba’s trachea using a 3-D printer, a device that uses a laser-centering system to carve out physical objects designed on a computer.

Both Green and Hollister said the effects were instantaneous and Kaiba’s lungs began to inflate and deflate normally.

Hollister explained that the splint is unique from previous tracheobronchomalacia treatments because it doesn’t include stints put inside the trachea or metal plates on the outside.

Both traditional solutions pose further medical problems and have yielded little success, Hollister said. Kaiba’s splint was placed outside of his trachea, and is made from biodegradable material that will dissolve once his tissue is grown and healthy.

“Because of the convocational design in 3-D printing, you could actually make it in this horse-shoe shape as well as having the suture holes made right within the splint,” Hollister said. “That makes it possible for the surgeons to actually suture to the outer wall of the trachea, the bronchus, and then pull it out with the suture through the suture hole to essentially tense it within the splint.”

Green said the benefit of having the 3-D printer was that Hollister could use engineering to create the perfect solution rather than rely on the carving of a surgeon.

“It would be impossible to make (the splint) with the precision needed for those characteristics and have it be specific for this trial,” Green said.

Both men had been working together for about two years before Kaiba’s treatment.

The two partnered up while Green was working on treatments for tracheobronchomalacia and Hollister had been doing work with 3-D printers. They had created prototypes of the splint and had shared their work at other universities, which is how their colleague in Akron knew they would have a solution for Kaiba.

Kaiba was the first patient ever to receive a treatment from 3-D printed material and both Hollister and Green are encouraged by its success.

“It’s the ultimate example of customized medicine and it can be done much more rapidly and precisely than any way we’ve had to do things before,” Green said.

The two doctors plan to patent their splint and continue to explore the possibilities of 3-D printing in medicine. They see it as a solution to replacing ears and noses, facial reconstruction and bone tissue.