A baby boy from Ohio, Kaiba (KEYE’-buh) Gionfriddo, was born with a trachea (windpipe) that was fragile and kept collapsing. Without precious oxygen, he choked and passed out. Even though the physicians attending him thought about using an airway splint to open his airway, they had yet to implant it. Kaiba was not getting any better, and without a way to get him the oxygen that his little body desperately needed, he did not have much time. All he could do was lie in a hospital bed on a breathing machine.
To solve this problem, the doctors used plastic particles and a 3-D laser printer to generate an airway splint to deliver oxygen to his lungs. This is a technological first and is the latest advance in the quickly advancing field of regenerative medicine that tries to make human body parts in the lab.
The even more stupendous aspect of this feat is that the production of the tracheal tube only too k one day. Yes, in a single day they “printed out” 100 tiny tubes by employing computer-guided lasers to stack and fuse thin layers of plastic to form various shapes and sizes. The next day, with special permission from the US Food and Drug Administration, they implanted one of these tubes in Kaiba. Needless to say, this is the first time such a treatment has even been done.
Suddenly, Kaiba, whom doctors said would probably never leave the hospital alive, could breathe normally for the first time. Kaiba was 3 months old when the operation was done last year and is nearly 19 months old now. He is about to have his tracheotomy tube removed since it was placed in his throat when he was a couple of months old. He no longer needs a breathing machine and has had not had a single breathing crisis since coming home a year ago.
“He’s a pretty healthy kid right now,” says Dr. Glenn Green, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the operation was done. This remarkable feat of tissue engineering is described in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Independent experts have highly praised this and the potential 3-D printing provides for creating and quickly manufacturing body parts to solve unmet medical needs.
So far, only a few adults have had trachea, or windpipe transplants, and these are usually used to replace windpipes destroyed by cancer. The windpipes came from dead donors or were lab-made, sometimes using stem cells. Last month, a 2-year-old girl born without a windpipe received one grown from her own stem cells on a plastic scaffold at a hospital in Peoria, Ill.
Kaiba, however, had a different problem; namely an incompletely formed bronchus. The bronchi are the tubes that branch from the windpipe to the lungs. Approximately 2,000 babies are born with such defects each year in the United States and most outgrow them by age 2 or 3, as they grow and mature and their respiratory tract replaces the lost tissues.
In severe cases, parents learn of the defect when the child suddenly stops breathing and dies. That almost happened when Kaiba was 6 weeks old at a restaurant with his parents, April and Bryan Gionfriddo, who live in Youngstown, in northeast Ohio. “He turned blue and stopped breathing on us,” and his father did CPR to revive him, April Gionfriddo says.
More episodes followed, and Kaiba had to go on a breathing machine when he was 2 months old. Doctors told the couple his condition was grave. “Quite a few of them says he had a good chance of not leaving the hospital alive. It was pretty scary,” his mother says. “We pretty much prayed every night, hoping that he would pull through.”
Fortunately a physician at Akron Children’s Hospital named Dr. Marc Nelson suggested the experimental work in Michigan in which researchers were testing airway splints made from biodegradable polyester that are sometimes used to repair bone and cartilage.
Kaiba had the operation on Feb. 9, 2012. The splint was placed around his defective bronchus, which was stitched to the splint to keep it from collapsing. The splint has a slit along its length so it can expand and grow as the child does — something a permanent, artificial implant could not do.
The plastic from which the splint is made is designed to degrade and gradually be absorbed by the body over three years, as healthy tissue forms to replace it, according to the biomedical engineer who led the work, Scott Hollister.
Green and Scott Hollister have a patent pending on the device and Hollister has a financial interest in a company that makes scaffolds for implants.
Dr. John Bent, a pediatric specialist at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says only time will tell if this proves to be a permanent solution, but he praised the researchers for persevering to develop it.
“I can think of a handful of children I have seen in the last two decades who suffered greatly … that likely would have benefited from this technology,” Bent says.