News Feature | March 3, 2014

3D Printed Heart Helps Save Infant's Life

By Joel Lindsey

When surgeons in Louisville, KY, realized their 14-month-old patient, Roland Lian Cung Bawi, had multiple heart defects, they turned to 3D printing to create a model of the young boy’s heart.

“If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a model is worth 1,000 pictures,” Tim Gornet, manager of the Rapid Prototyping Center at the University of Louisville’s Speed School of Engineering, said in an article published by the Courier-Journal.

Erle H. Austin III, a surgeon at the Kosair Children’s Hospital, turned to Gornet for help when it became too difficult to gauge the extent of young Bawi’s multiple heart conditions.

“Some people think when you do heart surgery, you go in and can see everything. Well, to see everything, you have to slice through vital structures,” Austin said in an article published by Tech Times. “Sometimes the surgeon has to guess at what’s the best option.”

Rather than run the many risks of exploring Bawi’s heart after cutting him open, Austin decided to build a model of his patient’s heart before going into surgery. Collaborating with Gornet, they were able to use images from CT scans to create a model 1.5 times larger than the boy’s actual heart. The model was built using a flexible polymer called “Ninja Flex,” which gave it a feel similar to the muscles of a real heart, according to Tech Times.

Using the model, Austin could safely identify all the problems with Bawi’s heart and come up with an effective strategy for surgery.

The three-dimensional model showed Austin that he could cut a precise pathway between the aortic valve and a ventricle in order to avoid the need for multiple surgeries and additional cuts, an article at Extreme Tech reported. This meant that he could perform the surgery as precisely and as minimally invasive as possible.

 “Once I had a model, I knew exactly what I needed to do and how I could do it,” Austin said. “It was a tremendous benefit. I found the model to be a game changer in planning to do surgery on a complex congenital heart defect.”

The model heart took 20 hours to print and cost $600.

The use of a model heart to perform heart surgery is the latest in a growing field of 3D-printing in healthcare applications. In addition to the model of Bawi’s heart,  Gornet’s team of engineers in Louisville has already printed 3D models of spinal defects and tumors.

Elsewhere, surgeons in England successfully implanted a 3D-printed pelvis into a cancer patient earlier this month.

“If better models can reduce the need for such invasive procedures, the expense and difficulty of early 3D printing technology will pay for itself,” Joel Hruska concluded in his Extreme Tech article.