The splints were hollow, porous tubes that could be stitched over the affected airways, forming a scaffolding that helped support the weakened structures. They were made with a “bioabsorbable” material known as polycaprolactone that dissolves in the body over time.
Researchers at the University of Michigan made the devices using 3D printing, in which materials are added in layers to create custom products. Such printers are already used in medicine to create a number of custom implants, creating new jaws, hips and hearing devices, for example.
“This is the first 3D printed implant specifically designed to change shape over time to allow for a child’s growth before finally reabsorbing as the disease is cured,” said Dr. Glenn Green, an associate professor of paediatric otolaryngology at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, and one of the study’s authors.
All three children in the study suffered from tracheobronchomalacia, a typically fatal condition in which the walls of the trachea and bronchi are weakened, making them prone to collapse, leading to respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.
Green said the first child who received the implant three years ago, a boy named Kaiba Gionfriddo, now appears to be cured of the disease, and the splint has been absorbed.
Prior efforts to treat these children involved the use of fixed airway splints that needed to be frequently resized.
“The device worked better than we could have ever imagined,” Green said in a statement.
Prior to the implants, all three children required heavy sedation and narcotics and the insertion of a breathing tube in their necks and were on artificial ventilators.
“Now these children are home with their families. Instead of lying on their backs for weeks, these children are now learning to stand and run,” Green said.