by Michael Reid
CANBERRA, May 7 (Xinhua) -- Sleep apnoea sufferers might soon be able to breathe easy, thanks to a three-dimensional printed device developed in Australia.
This debilitating, and often fatal, condition occurs when the air passage in the throat is blocked during sleep and causes people to stop breathing.
In severe cases, people can suffer hundreds of events per night, waking up tired and irritable and facing a host of related health problems.
But researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and Australian dental company Oventus have developed a mouthpiece that they say could prevent these dangerous pauses in breathing.
Printed from titanium and coated with a medical grade plastic, the breakthrough mouthpiece is customized for each patient after taking a 3D scan of his or her mouth.
The device has a 'duckbill' that extends from the mouth like a whistle and divides into two separate airways. It allows air to flow through to the back of the throat, avoiding obstructions from the nose, the back of the mouth and tongue.
An estimated one million Australians suffer from the disorder, which can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, irregular heartbeats, heart attacks and diabetes. This number is expected to increase due to growing obesity among Australians and an ageing population.
Existing treatments include devices that push the lower jaw forward to open up the airway or in more severe cases, a face mask which creates a continuous flow of air.
John Barnes, a theme leader and 3D printing expert at CSIRO, a federal government agency for scientific research in Australia, said the technology is opening new doors for treatments of a wide range of medical issues globally.
"The possibilities of 3D printing are endless and the fact that we can now design and print a completely customized mouthpiece for patients is revolutionary," Barnes said.
He said that the design offers significant benefits which cannot be achieved with more traditional manufacturing techniques.
Barnes said the U-shaped device resembled the mouth guards worn by athletes. "It has platform that the teeth sit on and a round piece that goes around the outside of the mouth, forming a hollow tunnel between the teeth and the cheeks. The air comes in and splits left and right and moves straight to the back of throat," he said.
The mouthpiece requires only a slight opening in the mouth and causes little, if any, discomfort, unlike traditional devices.
Barnes said that his unit had also been developing medical devices for animals and had successfully treated lameness among horses with a 3D-technology horse shoe. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process in which three-dimensional solid objects are made from a digital model.
It is achieved by using a computer-driven additive process, where successive layers of materials are laid down in different shapes.
The technology as a prototype can also be use in manufactured goods and has a wide range of applications, including biotechnology for human tissue replacement and design in architecture, construction, industries, automotive and aerospace, even in fashion and food.
Neil Anderson, Oventus's chief executive officer, said the key to the new 3D mouthpiece was in the design.
"It bypasses all obstructions by having airways that deliver air to the back of the throat and it will also stop patients from snoring," Anderson said.
Oventusis is aiming to have the device available to patients in 2015.