Doctors save Ohio boy by 'printing' an airway tube

  • Article by: MARILYNN MARCHIONE , Associated Press
  • Updated: May 22, 2013 - 8:27 PM

Using 3-D laser printers to create body parts furthers regenerative medicine.

Kaiba Gionfriddo played outside his house in Youngstown, Ohio, on Tuesday. An artificial airway splint allows him to breathe normally.

Photo: Mark Stahl • Associated Press,

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In a medical first, doctors used plastic particles and a 3-D laser printer to create an airway splint to save the life of a baby boy who used to stop breathing nearly every day.

It’s the latest advance from the booming field of regenerative medicine, making body parts in the lab.

In the case of Kaiba Gionfriddo, doctors didn’t have a moment to spare. Because of a birth defect, the little Ohio boy’s airway kept collapsing, causing his breathing to stop and often his heart, too. Doctors in Michigan had been researching artificial airway splints but had not implanted one in a patient.

In a single day, they “printed out” 100 tiny tubes, using computer-guided lasers to stack and fuse thin layers of plastic instead of paper and ink to form various shapes and sizes. The next day, with permission from the Food and Drug Administration, they implanted one of these tubes in Kaiba, the first time this has been done.

Suddenly, a baby who doctors had said would probably not leave the hospital alive could breathe normally for the first time. He 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; it was placed when he was a couple of months old and needed a breathing machine. And he has not had a single breathing crisis since coming home a year ago.

“He’s a pretty healthy kid right now,” said 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. It’s described in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Independent experts praised the work and the potential for 3-D printing to create more body parts to solve unmet medical needs. “It’s the wave of the future,” said Dr. Robert Weatherly, a pediatric specialist at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

Kaiba had an incompletely formed bronchus, one of the two airways that branch off the windpipe like pant legs to the lungs. About 2,000 babies are born with such defects each year in the United States, and most outgrow them by age 2 or 3 as more tissue develops.

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 said.

More episodes followed, and Kaiba had to go on a breathing machine when he was 2 months old. Doctors told the couple that his condition was grave.

Then Dr. Marc Nelson of Akron Children’s Hospital suggested the experimental work in Michigan.

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