A splint created with a 3D printer saved a child’s life, and its medical potential is far from fully explored.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about using 3D printers to create everything from weapons to food. While many of these innovations have yet to come to fruition, the medical community has been using the technology for years with considerable success. 3D printing has already revolutionized medical imaging, implants, and stem cell therapy.

Now, researchers at the University of Michigan have used a 3D printed device to treat a life-threatening case of tracheobronchomalacia in an infant.

The research by Dr. Glenn Green, an associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of Michigan, and his colleague Dr. Scott Hollister, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering and an associate professor of surgery, was published today in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Kaiba, the 20-month-old son of April and Bryan Gionfriddo of Ann Arbor, Mich., suffered from tracheobronchomalacia, a rare condition that weakens the cartilage supporting the trachea. His collapsed bronchus kept air from flowing into his lungs and he had to be resuscitated every day. Doctors told his parents the baby would likely die.

Using a CT scan of Kaiba’s trachea and bronchus, researchers developed the design for a bronchus splint with digital imaging software. Next, the splint was printed using a biopolymer material called polycaprolactone. The splint was surgically placed over Kaiba’s airway to expand his bronchus and support its growth.

“It was amazing. As soon as the splint was put in, the lungs started going up and down for the first time and we knew he was going to be OK,” Green said in a press release.

The splint is bioresorbable, meaning that Kaiba’s body will break it down over time. Bioresorbable implants offer some advantages over stents made from artificial materials, such as eliminating the need for removal once Kaiba’s bronchus becomes strong enough to function on its own.

For Kaiba, the splint will dissolve in about three years. More than a year after his surgery, Kaiba’s parents say he is doing well.

“Kaiba’s case is definitely the highlight of my career so far,” Hollister said in a press release. “To actually build something that a surgeon can use to save a person’s life? It’s a tremendous feeling.”

3D printing is a quick and effective means of creating personalized devices for patients. In fact, about 100 of these splints can be printed in a four-hour period.

“3D printing allows us to readily manufacture such complex shapes fairly rapidly,” Green said in an interview with Healthline. “Furthermore, if needed, we can customize the splint to the patient based on a CT or MRI scan, and then we can directly go back to the 3D printer and rapidly build the customized part without changing any tooling or manufacturing equipment.”

Green and Hollister have already seen just what 3D printing is capable of creating. The researchers have experimented with printing ear and nose structures in pre-clinical models.

“The broader future beyond the splint is that we can readily build a replica of any patient’s anatomy from the chosen biomaterial by converting a CT or MRI scan to a 3D computer model and adding needed design features,” Hollister said in an interview with Healthline. “Furthermore, we can build these parts with any pore or hole structure. This allows us to place stem cells or growth factors inside the biomaterial to potentially regrow new tissue. Although cells and growth factors were not added to the splint, we see the splint as a platform for which we can do this for more complex airway repair in the future.”