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Could specially designed implants help babies with rare breathing difficulties?

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Professor Liz Tanner, of the University of Glasgow, aims to improve life for babies and young children who are having severe difficulties breathing because their windpipe hasn’t formed properly or has been damaged. One way to help these babies and children is to insert a small tube, called a stent, into their windpipe to keep it open. However, surgeons normally do this only as a last resort, because of problems with existing stents. Professor Tanner is designing a new type of stent in the hope of overcoming these problems, helping babies to breathe freely and perhaps even saving lives.

How are babies’ lives affected now?

“We are trying to help babies and children who are struggling to breathe because of problems with their windpipe,” says Professor Tanner.

This includes babies with conditions called tracheomalacia and tracheal stenosis, which can be present from birth, and babies or children whose windpipe has been damaged – by an infection, for example.

While some babies grow out of their breathing difficulties having experienced only mild symptoms, others have much more serious problems and need urgent surgery.

“Surgeons can insert an expandable metal tube – or ‘stent’ – into the windpipe to hold it open,” explains Professor Tanner. “However, they tend to do this only if all else fails, because a lack of suitable stents has been causing problems.”

“As time goes by and children grow, they have to undergo regular operations to make their stent bigger and remove tissue that grows over it,” continues Professor Tanner. “Existing stents are designed to expand only so far and certainly cannot be expanded to adult size. They become heavily embedded within the windpipe and stop the windpipe from growing.  If stents have to be removed, surgeons basically have to cut them out, which can be a complex procedure. Sadly, children have died because of these operations.”

How could this research help?

Professor Tanner and her team are designing a new type of biodegradable stent especially for babies and young children who have severe breathing difficulties because their windpipe hasn’t formed properly or has been damaged.

“We aim to develop new stents that are non-toxic, small enough to fit inside a newborn baby’s tiny windpipe, and flexible enough to move safely with the baby while keeping their windpipe open,” says Professor Tanner. “The stents will be expandable, so that they can easily be made bigger as the child grows. What’s more, since many children with these sorts of breathing difficulties grow out of their problems, we are designing the stents so that they slowly degrade within the body, meaning children will not have to undergo further, potentially hazardous surgery to remove their stent.”

By the end of this project, the team hopes their new stents will be ready for clinical trials in babies and young children.





Project Leader Professor K Elizabeth Tanner FREng FBSE FIMechE FIMMM CEng
Project Team Ms T Kunanandam
Project Location School of Engineering, University of Glasgow
Project Location Other Department of Otolaryngology, Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Glasgow
Project duration 2 years
Date awarded 15 November 2013
Project start date 6 May 2014
Project end date 1 May 2017
Grant amount £117,527
Grant code GN2223


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