3D printed anatomical models have been used in hospitals all over the world to help aid surgeons with complex procedures, proving to be one of the most significant uses of 3D printing technology in the medical field. One team of medical and engineering researchers from Australia’s University of Melborne, led by Associate Professor Peter Barlis, are combining this concept of 3D printed anatomical models with a unique scanning process, creating patient-specific 3D printed artery models that not only represent the shape, but also the issues within a patient’s heart.
Before 3D printing the heart artery model, Barlis and his team first use optical coherence tomography (OCT), a technique created by Barlis in 2009 that involves recording the shape, details, twists, and turns of the artery with a camera that is thinner than a strand of human hair. The medical team is using OCT to locate blockages and large plaque deposits in the artery, allowing them to get the full scope on the patient-specific heart issue. These OCT images are processed through a supercomputer to help build the 3D artery models, none of which is shaped exactly the same as another.
“We’ve gone to our engineers and created 3D models looking at a million data points in the artery,” said Dr. Barlis, who conducted and developed the research at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne.“We’re getting very useful data on potentially predicating sites within the arteries in the heart that may be prone to future complications.”
The research team has been collaborating with the University of Wollongong’s ARC Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science to 3D print these patient-specific artery models within a day. The importance of these patient-specific prints are clear: they allow cardiac surgeons to get an up close and personal look at the blood flow and blockage of a heart before the patient is on the operating table. Barlis and his team hope that their work with the 3D printed artery models will soon lead to the ability to custom 3D print heart stents right on the spot.
“We ideally want to use models to predict the best type of stent for a patient,” said Barlis. “Once this process is streamlined, we can have a patient on the table and an artery 3D printed and modeled to guide the procedure.”
In order to further the development of Barlis and his team’s work, they’ve been given two Australian Research Council grants to find a biocompatible polymer material to hopefully 3D print heart stents that will match the patient’s physical make-up, as well as reduce the risk of a stent collapse. They are also intrigued by the idea of new polymers that disintegrate slowly over time, which could be used as a bio-vessel of sorts to deliver drugs to specific locations in the arteries.
This development would be particularly helpful because, in reality, although the stents stay in a patient’s artery for life, the heart only necessitates a temporary scaffolding. Barlis and his team are now collaborating beyond the borders of Australia, working on further developing this research with The Imperial College in London and Harvard University in Boston. The full details of their research thus far are currently published in the European Heart Journal.