by Bill Snyder

How 3D Printing Can Save a Life

May 23, 20133 mins
Computers and PeripheralsConsumer ElectronicsInternet

If you thought 3D printers were only about printing guns to slip past metal detectors think again. Doctors in Michigan used a 3D printer to produce a splint to open the airway of a dying baby.

3D printing, a technology so cool and futuristic you’d think it was invented by the writers of Star Trek, is getting some terrible publicity these days. As you’ve probably heard, some cretins are using it to produce plastic guns that could be could slip past metal detectors.

But doctors in Michigan used a 3D printer to fabricate a splint to hold open the airway of a dying baby boy.

“Quite a few doctors said he had a good chance of not leaving the hospital alive,” said April Gionfriddo, about her now 20-month-old son, Kaiba. “At that point, we were desperate. Anything that would work, we would take it and run with it,” Gionfriddo added in a written statement.

Kaiba was born with Tracheobronchomalacia, a rare disease that causes the airway to collapse, making it difficult to breath. By the time he was 2 months old, the infant could only breathe with the aid of a ventilator. He would stop breathing on a regular basis and required resuscitation every day. (Kaiba and his mom are pictured below.)


Fortunately, researchers at the University of Michigan, had been working on a device that could help the infant. Glenn Green and Scott Hollister, medical science professors at Ann Arbor, obtained emergency clearance from the FDA to create and implant a tracheal splint for Kaiba made from a biopolymer called polycaprolactone. The device was created directly from a CT scan of Kaiba’s trachea, integrating an image-based computer model with laser-based 3D printing to produce the splint.

The splint was sewn around Kaiba’s airway to expand the bronchial passage and give it a skeleton to aid proper growth. Over about three years, the splint will be reabsorbed by his body.

“It was amazing. As soon as the splint was put in, the lungs started going up and down for the first time and we knew he was going to be OK,” said Green.

3D printing, Green and Hollister say, can also be used to construct other body parts. They have already utilized the process to build and test experimental ear and nose structures and to rebuild bone structures in the spine and face.

Kaiba is doing well and he and his family, including an older brother and sister, live in Ohio.

Plastic guns and amazing medicine aside, 3D printing is not only cool, it’s gradually become more mainstream. AutoDesk, as I wrote a while back, has developed software that lets you create 3D images which can be printed as solid objects by a number of companies, and the price of 3D printers, while still high, is coming down.

I missed the recent Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, but people who were there told me that 3D printing played an important role; you can see more of it at Maker Faires in other parts of the country.