After having difficulty breathing, a Kansai area resident went to the hospital where she learned that she had an irreversible case of pulmonary fibrosis (firming of lung tissue). The doctors told her that if she didn’t receive a transplant for her left lung she would die. Luckily, her own husband was found to be a suitable donor. However, although his blood and tissue matched, there was a problem with the size of his lung. So a team of doctors at Kyoto University came up with a creative solution so unheard of, you’re more likely to find it in the pages of Black Jack rather than a medical journal.

First let’s take a look at how a regular lung transplant might go. The human lung is basically divided into five lobes as shown in this super accurate diagram I just drew.

If someone has a failing lung and requires a transplant, one option would be to take an entire lung from a recently deceased donor. Although the patient can get a whole intact lung, the waiting lists are difficult and may require intensive surgery at a moment’s notice.

The other option would be to take an inferior lobe from two separate living donors. A healthy person can live a normal life with the loss of a single lobe, so the donors generally recover without issue. Although this situation is less urgent, it is understandably more complex for the person receiving the transplants.

In the case of this particular woman, an entire lung was needed but the only available donor was her husband. However, since time was of the essence, they would have to use only his one lobe to replace her entire left lung.

Unfortunately, the man’s inferior left lobe was truly inferior and too small to be used in such a way – a fact that had to have hurt the man’s pride on some level. As you can maybe kind of see in my first diagram, a human’s right lung is about 20% larger than the left one which also has to share space with the heart. Therefore, while the man’s inferior left lobe was woefully inadequate, his meaty inferior right lobe was more than up to the task.

The challenge here is in attaching a piece of right lung into the place of a left lung. Given the opposite sides and positions, it becomes a dangerous puzzle to try and connect all the arteries and bronchi (blood and air passages) correctly. It would be like trying to plug an NES game pad into an SNES.

To aid the Kyoto University medical staff, Nagoya City University lent the use of their 3-D printer. Together they could make a full 3-D model of the woman’s chest and map out exactly how they could make the right connections before proceeding.

Back in Kyoto in early March of this year, a team of 20 surgeons, all knowing exactly what needed to be done thanks to the use of the 3-D model, prepared for the operation. The procedure went relatively swiftly lasting only four and a half hours with both the husband and wife stable and in recovery.

After her surgery, the wife went into weeks of rehabilitation and was finally able to take 10,000 steps in a day, eventually being discharged on 10 May. By this time her husband had long recovered and was already back to work. He also had the ultimate ace-in-the-hole for any marital spats that would arise from then on.

During a press conference on 14 May, one of the surgeons and Kyoto University professor Yoji Date passed along the woman’s message of gratitude.

“Words can’t express how truly thankful I am. I feel like I was given a new life.”

Dr. Date also declared the transplant a success and declared it the first of its kind done with a living donor. Although, there’s often a lot of talk about the dangers or silliness of 3-D printing, it seems we are only scratching the surface of the benefits that this technology can bring to the world.

Source: Yahoo! Japan News, Sankei West (Japanese)
Images: RocketNews24