According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, an estimated 22 million Americans suffer from various forms of sleep apnea, a condition where the throat passage is blocked during sleep. Further to an immediate inability to breathe, if left untreated the condition can lead to more serious ailments, such as heart problems, stroke and diabetes. Current solutions can be both costly and uncomfortable, but researchers from Australia's CSIRO have developed a 3D-printed mouthpiece that can be personalized for each patient, potentially adding a more practical alternative to the mix.

The CSIRO researchers developed the mouthpiece in collaboration with Australian dental company Oventus. The team used a 3D scanner to produce a map of a patient's mouth and printed the device to fit, using a combination of titanium and medical grade plastic. The design separates the airflow into two separate passages. The "duckbill," a titanium spout protruding from the patient's mouth when in use, enables a clear airflow to the back of the throat, avoiding potential obstructions such as the tongue or relaxed muscles at the rear of the mouth.

“It’s an exciting prospect for people suffering from the debilitating disorder and the design offers significant benefits which cannot be achieved with more traditional manufacturing techniques," says CSIRO's 3D-printing expert, John Barnes.

Current efforts to treat sleep apnea include a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that blows air through the nose, a mouthpiece that pushes the jaw forward to open the airway and more recently, shock therapy to stimulate relaxed nerves in the tongue.

“When Oventus came to CSIRO with this idea, we were really excited. The possibilities of 3D printing are endless and the fact that we can now design and print a completely customised mouthpiece for patients is revolutionary,” says Barnes.

The CSIRO expects the device will be available to patients in 2015.

Source: CSIRO