Research

Video: How are 3D printed hearts helping families with heart problems?

Can you imagine holding your heart in your hand? BHF-funded researchers are helping patients to do just that.

Just like fingerprints, no two heart defects are the same. The problem is that, consequently, no two treatments or surgeries for children with heart defects will be exactly the same. But BHF-funded researcher Claudio Capelli (pictured below) is doing research on a possible solution: printing a life-size 3D version of their heart.

He and his team, based at Great Ormond Street Hospital, are creating 3D replicas of the tiny hearts of children with congenital heart disease.

Having a 3D printed heart made can also help adults, but it is particularly helpful for children with congenital heart disease, he says, as their hearts are very small and particularly complex. 

One patient who has benefitted is Lucas Ciulean, who is now 13 months old and was born with a rare heart defect in which the aorta, the main blood vessel taking blood to the body, is connected to the wrong part of the heart.

3D image of the zebrafish heart

His mother Mariana Ciulean, from north London, (pictured below with Tiberius and Lucas) explains: “He had surgery at three days old and then at 10 months, and the results were extraordinary. We’re so grateful for this technology as it helped save our child’s life. After the surgery the doctor showed us the 3D print of Lucas’ heart and explained how it helped him to perform the surgery.”

Lucas’ father Tiberius says: “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. We’re thankful to the people who do that.”

Dr Jonathan Taylor and his microscope software

To print a baby’s heart it can require up to 2,000 layers and take three to four hours to print

Having a physical replica of a patient’s heart means that surgeons can plan complex heart surgeries better. For example, in Lucas’ case they could understand how the aorta was placed in relation to the pulmonary artery (which takes blood to the lungs so it can be supplied with oxygen). 

“This can mean quicker, more effective surgeries, which can be an advantage for the patients, as they can recover faster with fewer complications,” Dr Capelli says.

It could also bring efficiencies for the NHS as it may mean that the surgeon could have time to do an extra operation each day – and that will start having a big impact on the overall system.

Dr Capelli and his team are now collaborating with other centres around the world in order to collect evidence that shows how beneficial 3D-printed hearts are.

How do you print a 3D heart?

  • You take images from a medical scan, such as a CT or MRI scan, and combine them so that you have a 3D visual of someone’s heart on your computer.
  • The file is sent to 3D printing technicians, who check the file and then load it into the 3D printer’s software. The technicians orientate the heart, and select the material and surface finish.
  • The machine then deposits tiny droplets onto a surface, in a similar way to a standard inkjet printer. But instead of ink it uses tiny resin droplets, which are then solidified using a UV lamp. Each layer can be as small as 32 micron (0.032 mm). The layering process is repeated until the heart is fully built. 
  • To print a baby’s heart it can require up to 2,000 layers and take three to four hours to print. To print an adult’s heart it can take up to 10,000 layers and need to be printed overnight.
  • The heart needs to then be pressure washed, to get rid of excess resin, and cleaned. Then it can be sent to the surgeon, cardiologist or researcher who’ll need it.

A collection of 3D printed hearts on a white table

A collection of 3D printed hearts, printed in different materials

Dr Capelli is currently working on BHF-funded research to find out whether seeing your 3D-printed heart helps teenagers deal with their heart condition better, which results in better self-care.

He explains: “This is especially important as, after age 18, they change clinic and take on responsibility for their own care – so 16-18 is a really critical age. It makes it a lot more real seeing your heart in front of you, some of them were very touched or affected by it and almost all of them kept it.”

After the three-year study, Dr Capelli’ team are intending to follow up the patients after five years to measure the long-term effects. “We’ll be measuring both the concrete effects, e.g. how often you go to the doctors, and the psychological effect, e.g. how do you feel about your condition,” Claudio says.

The next frontier in 3D printing could be bio-printing - 3D printing using cells or tissues. But this research needs a lot more development before it would be ready to use in humans.  

More useful information