Two University professors are honored in this month’s issue of Popular Mechanics magazine as one of the 10 most world-changing groups of innovators in 2013.

The honor follows the professors’ unprecedented treatment of a rare type of tracheal collapse: using a 3D printer to produce a customized, tailored splint to correct medical problems. Glenn Green, associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology, and Scott Hollister, professor of biochemical and mechanical engineering and associate professor of surgery, produced what may be the first instance of 3D printing saving a life.

The University got a mention in the list last year for the MABEL robot, which was built with the ability to walk more like humans than most other robots.

Logan Ward, a senior correspondent for Popular Mechanics, selects the Breakthrough Awards and said the honored technologies are not necessarily the flashiest and most complex of the year, but are making the biggest changes in impressive ways.

Ward added that Green and Hollister are particularly notable because they applied innovative technology to save a life.

“As magazine editors, we tell stories, and this is a dramatic story with a happy ending,” Ward said.

Green took the honor as an acknowledgment of his and his team’s effort to help children in innovative ways.

“They look at this as being a harbinger of the future,” Green said. “The potential of 3D manufacturing to help children and help everyone is recognized by them, and they wanted to showcase the way that 3D printing can revolutionize medical care.”

Green and Holister’s invention helped 2-year-old Kaiba Gionfriddo, who, at a very early age, faced great difficulty breathing. Six weeks after his birth, his parents discovered he had trouble eating. Two months later, a tube was inserted in his trachea to prevent chest contractions and other cardiopulmonary reactions.

The Youngstown, Ohio resident was born with tracheobronchomalacia, a rare condition where the windpipe’s tissue is so soft it can collapse over time. Kaiba’s case was especially severe; a tracheostomy — a tube that’s inserted into a patient’s windpipe and exits outside of the neck — and other common treatments were not helping.

Green and Hollister had already formed a partnership in experimenting with new solutions to tracheobronchomalacia. A call from a surgeon from Akron Children’s Hospital to University Hospital provided the chance to use the experimental device.

The splint that saved Kaiba’s life is about the size of a thimble. It’s made from a biodegradable material that will dissolve in his trachea in two years according to Hassan Nasser, a medical student who researches in Green’s lab. The splint gives Kaiba’s tracheal tissue additional time to strengthen; his windpipe will be strong enough in two years to function when the splint dissolves.

“Kids still have the ability to grow and develop their own cartilage,” Nasser said. “The splint buys him a couple years for his own cartilage to grow.”

This support for Kaiba’s trachea was lent by the customized nature of the splint. David Zopf, a fifth-year otolaryngology resident in Green’s lab, said the use of 3D printers allows doctors to custom fit and design a device like Kaiba’s with precision.

“The whole process really provides a tool that provides a customized microdevice in a matter of time that wasn’t seen before,” Zopf said.

The production of an individual splint itself takes about a minute, and designing an individual tube is similarly straightforward. Nasser described how doctors took a CT scan of Kaiba which allowed a comprehensive, 3D view of his chest.

Examining CT scans, which combine a series of X-rays from multiple angles, is like analyzing a loaf of bread by looking at individual slices of bread. This CT scan revealed the worst case of tracheobronchomalacia Green had ever seen.

From a scan, the already created blueprint for the splint design can be customized for the patient’s body on a computer.

Ward said 3D printers are following the same trajectory as personal computers, which were once only found in industrial and research institutions, but now can be found in over 75 percent of American households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the next 50 years, he said, these machines will likely be ubiquitous in American households.

“I think 3D printing has arrived. It’s way more than a fad,” Ward said. “In the not-so-distant future, people will download CAD drawings and print products at home. They will design their own stuff and sell it. And more and more people like Glenn (Green) and Scott (Hollister) will use it to do good.”

The treatment has not been disseminated to other tracheobronchomalacia patients. But, when the time comes for mass production, a printer can produce 200 splints in four hours — approximately 1.2 minutes for one splint.

“I’m always impressed when you look at the splint and you look at what it does,” Zopf said. “It’s a fairly simple solution that’s really had a dramatic impact and could potentially have more.”

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