According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), each year, there are over 4600 babies born with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) – potentially life-threatening defects within the structure of the heart.
With the unique qualities of each defect, researchers at the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London are developing 3D printed replicas of children’s hearts for surgeons to better plan complex and crucial heart surgeries.
According to Dr. Claudio Capelli, a BHF-funded researcher leading the 3D printed hearts project at GOSH, “This can mean quicker, more effective surgeries, which can be an advantage for the patients, as they can recover faster with fewer complications.”
The case of Lucas Ciulean
Dr. Capelli and his team of researchers are explored surgical solutions for children with CHD through life-size 3D models of the patient’s heart. He explains, “Having a 3D printed heart made can also help adults, but it is particularly helpful for children with congenital heart disease as their hearts are very small and particularly complex.”
In one case, Dr. Capelli’s work has contributed to the successful surgery of Lucas Ciulean, a 13-month-old born with a rare heart defect. Lucas’ aorta, the main artery distributing blood around the body, was connected to the wrong part of his heart.
Using a medical scan to recreate a 3D model of Lucas’ heart helped surgeons understood how the aorta was positioned with respect to the pulmonary artery – which transports blood from the heart to the lungs.
Following their son’s successful surgery and recovery, Lucas’ parents expressed their admiration for the 3D printed models. His father, Tiberius Ciulean, said, “When the doctor first showed us the heart, we were amazed, we had no idea about this technology and that they were printing 3D hearts,”
“To have Lucas’ heart in your hand and hear everything that the surgeon did and about the problem, it was amazing.”
Heart models in hours
Creating the 3D model of Lucas’ heart began with combining a series of medical scans. The scans are sent and loaded into 3D printing software where technicians orientated the heart and choose the material and surface finishes.
Using a resin-based 3D printer, the research team printed layers as small as 32 microns (0.032mm) to form the shape of the heart and then used a UV lamp to solidify the model.
According to Dr. Capelli, 3D printing a baby’s heart requires up to 2000 layers and three to four hours to build, while an adult’s heart can take up to 10,00 layers and must be fabricated overnight.
After 3D printing, the model of Lucas’ heart was then pressure washed and cleaned to remove excess resin. After this process, the 3D model was sent to the surgeon and cardiologist associated with the surgery.
3D printed organs & surgeries
Last year, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, U.K. reduced surgical planning by an estimated 93% through the use of 3D models for maxillofacial (face and jaw) surgeries.
Also contributing to the research within children cardiology is the Children’s Heart Research and Outcomes Center (HeRO) who are developing 3D bioprinted valves, leaflets, and patches to provide a long-lasting solution for children born with CHD.
Dr. Capelli is now working on BHF-funded research to understand the effects of patient’s seeing and touching their own 3D-printed heart and whether that helps teenagers better cope with their heart condition.
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Featured image show 3D models of hearts printed by researchers from the British Heart Foundation. Photo via the British Heart Foundation.