Oct 9, 2015 | By Kira

We have seen many cases of 3D printing technology being used to assist surgeries or complicated medical procedures, including 3D printing models of the patient’s organs for doctors to study and practice with, or 3D printed implants. Now, 3D printing could to be used to save patients’ lives before they are even born. In a paper published in the online journal Pediatrics, a team of doctors from the University of Michigan report using 3D printing technology to recreate the facial anatomy of an unborn child, whom they feared would been born with a facial deformity blocking its airway. The case marks the first time 3D printing technology has been used in utero to diagnose facial deformity and severity of airway risk with a newborn.

The problem arose when initial ultrasounds from the 22-year-old mother’s 30 week pregnancy shows signs of a large mass on the fetus. Though the doctors could not extract enough information from the images to identify the nature of the mass, they immediately recognized the risk that it might obstruct the child’s airway, restricting it from breathing after labour. The condition, known as congenital airway obstruction, can be life-threatening. The woman then underwent an MRI, but due to the fetus’ position, the doctors still could not see just what it was. If, as they feared, the mass were to block the child’s airway, the newborn would require an intubation—where doctors place a plastic tube into the windpipe—to help with its breathing.

Rather than take the risk, and in order to know exactly what they were dealing with, the team of doctors performed a second, specialized MRI that was able to capture more precise data. With this information on hand, they could accurately print a 3D model of the baby’s facial anatomy—including the mysterious mass.

The 3D model put the doctors—and surely the mother—at ease. It predicted a protuberant cleft lip and palate deformity without airway obstruction. According to the paper, the delivery was uneventful, and the child was discharged without need for airway intervention.

While this case had a happy ending after all, the researchers state that it demonstrates how 3D modelling can be used to improve prenatal evaluation in high-risk pregnancies, and assist doctors in making potentially life-saving decisions. For example, had the 3D model of the baby’s face shown an airway obstruction, the doctors could have prepared all the necessary arrangements and gone through additional training, if necessary, to ensure that the intubation would be as successful and anxiety-free as possible for both mother and child. As they say, there’s no such thing as being over-prepared.

Dr. Albert Woo

Dr. Albert Woo, pediatric plastic surgeon at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and director of the 3D printing lab at Washing University School of Medicine, said that the technology presents a major opportunity in a high-risk area of medicine. “In this specific instance where airway distress is a major possible issue, I think it potentially can help to revolutionize that field,” he said. It really provides a new tool so that doctors are much better prepared to deal with airway problems or other congenital anomalies that they need to diagnose critically right when babies are born.” He added that while 3D images on a screen can sometimes reveal similar information, “there is no replacement for being able to hold an object in your hand.” The 3D printed models can give doctors insights that might not come through as strongly on a flat screen.

A drawback of using 3D printing technology in medical cases such as this is the extremely high cost. Medical-grade 3D printers can range from several thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Woo estimates that the software alone costs $10,000-$20,000 annually. Still, Dr. Oren Tepper, director of craniofacial surgery at Montefiore Health System in New York City believes that in the case of the Michigan doctors, the life-threatening nature of the situation justified the use of the 3D printed model. Furthermore, he believes that as doctors find more uses for the technology, and as it continues to advance (as we know it inevitably will), these prices will drop, making it more and more accessible, and more likely to positive affect people’s lives. “[3D printing is] still finding is way into other industries…but one area I’m confident it’s going to be routine is medicine.”



Posted in 3D Printers





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