Meet the baby boy whose face was 3D printed in the womb

No matter how much 3D printing means to you and no matter how passionate you are about the industry, it means more to a little boy named Conan Thompson.

Before Conan was born, doctors performing a routine ultrasound scan discovered an abnormality on his face. This walnut-sized lump was located close enough to the airway for doctors to be seriously concerned for Conan’s life, but the fact was, they had no idea what it was. So, the doctors performed another ultrasound scan, but this told the doctors nothing new. What they did know however was that the lump could block Conan’s airway during childbirth, suffocating him.

Ordinarily, such a scenario would see a baby delivered by C-section and doctors quickly intubate the baby to help him or her breath, but intubation (the placement of a plastic tube into the windpipe to maintain an open airway) is a risky procedure and doctors were not sure it would be right for Conan. And so, the doctors involved in Conan’s case wanted to find out more.

So how did they do it? Well for us 3D printer loving folk’, this is where the story gets incredibly interesting.

MRI + 3D printing = a match made in heaven

Conan was referred to the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Doctors there came up with the genius solution to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to take detailed images of unborn Conan’s face, and then use these images to 3D print models of his face, so that they could see exactly what the abnormality was. They enlisted the help of Ann Arbor-based ThingSmiths, who specialise in both fused deposit modelling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing to produce the models they needed.

The result? Incredibly detailed life-sized models of the patient’s face, with the mass of soft tissue causing concern perfectly replicated to help doctors make an informed treatment decision moving forwards.

Glenn Green, M.D., associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, said:

Based on the images we had, it was unclear whether the mass would block Conan’s airway after birth. The 3D printed model of the fetus allowed us to actually see in person what it looked like and have something in our hands to help us decide the best way to care for the baby.

After reviewing the MRI scans and the 3D printed models, doctors diagnosed Conan with a cleft lip and palate deformity. This is not ordinarily a life-threatening deformity, and not a deformity that would cause Conan any breathing difficulties during or after childbirth. As a result, this meant that Conan would not need an Ex Utero Intrapartum Treatment Procedure (EXIT), which is a risky procedure involving partial delivery with airway examination while the baby is still attached to the umbilical cord.

Doctors were able to determine that Conan could be safely delivered by C-section, and that he would not need the specialist care previously thought. Conan was born healthily, without incident, by C-section weeks later.

I was terrified when I found out there was a possibility my baby might not be able to breathe after birth,” recalls Thompson, of Wayne County, Mich. “Hearing him cry after he was born was the most incredible, emotional experience because I knew he was OK.

They told me the 3D printed models would help give them a more accurate idea of what was going on and what kind of delivery I should have. I was relieved that I didn’t need the more complicated and risky surgery and could be awake for the birth of my first baby. I’m glad that what they did for Conan may help other babies and their families in similar situations.

Could 3D printing revolutionise prenatal care?

Doctors believe that where airway distress is a major possible issue with childbirth, 3D printing can help them to deal with airway problems or other congenital anomalies. This was the first time that 3D printing has been used to diagnose a facial deformity, and it is now thought that 3D printing can be used to revolutionise the way that prenatal care is carried out, and help the hundreds of thousands of children who are born with a facial deformity, such as the cleft lip and palate deformity in Conan’s case, every year. Dr. Albert Woo, a pediatric plastic surgeon at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said on the news:

I would suggest that there’s no replacement for being able to hold an object in your hand and have this tactile three-dimensional ability to assess something,” Woo said. “When you’re actually holding a model of a skull, for example, in your hand, it’s a whole different experience.

If you would like an FDM 3D printer of your own, check out the superb Zortrax M200. Or if SLA 3D printing is more your thing, check out the FormLabs Form 1+ (or the Form 2 which is coming to GoPrint3D soon).

Source: Story taken from notes from the University of Michigan Health System. Dr. Albert Woo quote taken from HealthDay.