3D-printed medical device rescues baby's breath

A baby with a rare condition will get to go home for the first time thanks to a 3D-printed airway splint that is helping him breathe on his own.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Baby Garrett with parents
Garrett with his parents. University of Michigan Health System

Garrett Peterson is only 18 months old, but he has been hooked to a ventilator just to stay alive. He suffers from a serious form of tracheobronchomalacia, which causes his breathing airways to collapse. Even slight movements can trigger the problem, so he has been unable to go home with his parents, Natalie and Jake Peterson. That's about to change thanks to the use of a 3D-printed trachael splint.

"Nothing would stop him from turning blue," said Natalie Peterson in a release from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, where Garrett underwent surgery in January. "Just lifting his legs for diaper change would collapse his airways and that was it. There was nothing we could do to help him."

3D-printed splints
These 3D-printed splints were made to match Garrett. (Click to enlarge.) University of Michigan Health System

Using a technique pioneered by researchers from the University of Michigan, Garrett was surgically fitted with a custom splint. It was printed based on a 3D model made from a CT scan of the baby's bronchi and trachea. The splint is now helping to keep his airways open, and he is being weaned from the ventilator.

Glenn Green is one of the doctors who developed the device, and he assisted in Garrett's surgery. "This is absolutely fabulous. We know that the splint's working. He's able to ventilate both lungs for the first time. I'm very optimistic for him," said Green shortly after the surgery.

The splint was printed using polycaprolactone, a type of biopolymer that will break down and be absorbed by the body over the course of a few years. By the time the splint is gone, Garrett's airways should be strong enough to stay open without assistance.

This is only the second time the technique has been used. The first time was last year, when a baby with the same condition received the device. That child recently turned 2 and is doing well, with no lingering symptoms from the condition, according to the release. News of that successful first attempt prompted Garrett's parents to look to the 3D-printed splint as a solution.

Before the splint, Garrett would stop breathing up to several times a day and he wasn't getting better. Since 3D printers have grown in popularity, doctors and designers have used them for everything from casts to prosthetics. Garrett's case shows just how great an impact this burgeoning technology can have on a life. It's giving a child who couldn't even go home a ticket to a normal life.