The words “breakthrough” and “revolutionary” are overused in the media for many stories, and particularly for medical ones, but it’s hard not to search for something powerful and descriptive when you hear how doctors in Ohio used a 3D printer to create a new windpipe that saved the life of a baby boy. (Here’s a story about the work.)
The child was born with a birth defect that meant his airway kept collapsing, causing his breathing, and even his heart, to stop. Without intervention he would have died.
Doctors at the hospital where the baby was being treated reached out to researchers at the University of Michigan for help. Those researchers used computer-guided lasers and a 3D printer to create a tiny tube that would act like a splint inside the boy’s windpipe, providing the support it needed to not collapse and to function normally. Because this was the first time anything like this had been done they needed special approval from the Food and Drug Administration to implant it, but after they did the boy responded beautifully. He was 3 months old at the time of the surgery. Today he is 19 months old, has been able to leave the hospital and has not had any breathing problems since then.
This work was described in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
This follows another recent story about a 2-year old girl who was given an artificial windpipe created, in part, from her own stem cells. These are examples of how the field of regenerative medicine is pioneering approaches to treating life-threatening conditions. While these are truly remarkable they are still, in some senses, experimental therapies. They went ahead because without them these children would have died. To make sure these are safe approaches for others we still need to do a lot of research and study.
Nonetheless there is no mistaking the excitement that stories like this generate. It’s part of the field of tissue-engineering, an area of research that seeks to develop new tools and methods for the replacement, or regeneration of human organs and tissues. It’s an area that we are actively involved in funding – here is a video that explores the field and the hopes for this approach.