Harvard researchers using 3-D printing to create customized airway stents

Dr. George Cheng

As 3-D printing gains traction within the industry, Harvard University Medical School researchers are using the technology to develop customized airway stents for patients with breathing problems.

Dr. George Cheng and his team at Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are creating finger-sized prototypes of stents to help individuals who suffer from stenosis, cancer-related breathing problems and other airway issues, The Boston Globe reports. Doctors can order airway stents with customized dimensions, but measurements must be sent to a manufacturer and the resulting stent is made from tubular segments, rather than curved to fit a patient's anatomy.

3-D printing the device could cut turnaround times to three to four days, and provide a more cost-effective model, Cheng said (as quoted by the Globe).

"We think that by 3-D printing, we can make the perfect-size stent for the patient," Adnan Majid, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and pulmonary specialist at Beth Israel who served as Cheng's adviser on the research, told the newspaper. "It may be faster, cheaper, and ultimately translate into better care."

Unlike regular airway stents, Cheng's device is created from a plastic mold. Researchers pour silicone into the mold, and use a program to automatically produce a model based on the CT scan of a patient's trachea. Cheng and a colleague also experimented with adding an exterior surface created from permeable mesh, which would prevent bacteria from building up against a patient's airway walls. Variations on the mesh design include a coil, a double helix and a diagonal grid that holds the shape of the airway while making contact with only a few portions of it.

Cheng and his team hope to hold a clinical trial on the custom stents at Beth Israel sometime next year, and have already approached a stent manufacturer to discuss how 3-D printing could be used on a larger scale, according to the Globe article.

The innovation comes at a pivotal moment, as researchers turn to 3-D printing as a way to produce more patient-friendly devices. In May, doctors at the University of Michigan implanted a 3-D printed tracheal splint in an infant with a life-threatening breathing disorder. In June, scientists at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital used a 3-D bioprinting method to create functional, synthetic blood vessels that could one day be used to develop tissues and test drugs outside the body.

- read the Boston Globe article (sub. req.)

Special Report: 3-D printing grows to scale within industry

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