Presented with a life-threatening airway mass, doctors use 3D printed fetal head to manage care for unborn baby

By Dave Andrusko

Image courtesy of the University of Michigan Health

Image courtesy of the University of Michigan Health

As many times as we’ve written about it, to be honest I’m not sure I actually understand how 3D printing works–certainly not in the context that matters to us: helping preborn babies.

But here’s the latest example, courtesy of the University of Michigan, of what is genuinely cutting edge technology.

According to Science Daily, Megan Thompson was about 30 weeks pregnant when during a routine ultrasound technicians spotted a walnut-sized lump on her unborn baby’s face. The concern was whether this would prevent her son Conan from breathing when he was born.

After being referred to the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, the daunting question was whether baby Conan could be delivered safely through a conventional C-section or would require a rare and complex procedure known as an Ex Utero Intrapartum Treatment procedure, a kind of highly modified Cesarean delivery.

According to Science Daily,

“The EXIT procedure requires a partial delivery of the baby while it remains attached by its umbilical cord to the placenta so that a surgeon can establish an airway to allow the baby to breathe.“

How to decide? That’s where the 3D printing comes in. Here’s how it worked:

Using a specialized MRI of the fetus in the womb, doctors were able to use a 3D printer to print models of the fetus’ face, helping determine exactly where and how dangerous the soft tissue mass was. The case is outlined in the November issue of Pediatrics.

“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,” says senior author Glenn Green, M.D., associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“This is the first case we are aware of that 3D printing has helped show how severe an airway risk in a fetus was in order to make clinical decisions. 3D printing may be an incredibly valuable tool to help doctors prepare for complex cases ahead of birth.”

As you can imagine, Conan’s diagnosis scared Ms. Thompson.

Doctors at the University of Michigan were able to opt for a less risky version of a C-section in Conan’s delivery thanks to detailed information from a 3-D-printed model of the baby’s face when he was still in the womb. (Photo credit: Megan Thompson)

Doctors at the University of Michigan were able to opt for a less risky version of a C-section in Conan’s delivery thanks to detailed information from a 3-D-printed model of the baby’s face when he was still in the womb. (Photo credit: Megan Thompson)

“I was terrified when I found out there was a possibility my baby might not be able to breathe after birth,” Thompson said. “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.”

And when he was born?

“Hearing him cry after he was born was the most incredible, emotional experience because I knew he was OK,” Ms. Thompson said.

“This case demonstrates that 3D modeling may improve prenatal evaluation of complex patient-specific fetal anatomy and facilitate the multidisciplinary approach to perinatal management of complex airway anomalies,” the authors of the case study published in the journal Pediatrics wrote.

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