Thanks to a new state-of-the-art 3D printer, families of children with serious heart defects can now hold a model of their child’s heart in their hands. See how doctors at Atrium Health’s Levine Children’s Hospital are creating three-dimensional replicas of kids’ hearts to help improve procedures and patient education.

News, Child Health | 4 months ago

3D Printer Puts Models of Children's Hearts in Our Hands

Thanks to a new state-of-the-art 3D printer, families of children with serious heart defects can now hold a model of their child’s heart in their hands. See how doctors at Atrium Health’s Levine Children’s Hospital are creating three-dimensional replicas of kids’ hearts to help improve procedures and patient education.

 

From creating custom jewelry to car parts, the uses of 3D printing keep growing. And now you can add another item to the list: models of children’s hearts.

Atrium Health’s Levine Children’s Hospital (LCH) is now one of a handful of sites nationwide with the ability to turn computer models into three-dimensional replicas of children’s hearts. These models can then be used both to improve procedures like heart surgery and to educate patients.

The Ganatra 3D Printing Laboratory at LCH and Atrium Health’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute was formed earlier this year with a generous donation from the Ganatra family. The lab features a state-of-the-art printer and employs a biomedical engineer to work with the hospital’s cardiologists to create the models.

To understand how these models are reshaping patient care at LCH, we talked with the lab’s director, Joseph Paolillo, MD, director of the Pediatric Cardiac Catheterization Program and Vice-Chief of Pediatric Cardiology at LCH and Sanger.


Question 1: How did the lab begin?

Answer 1: The Ganatra family has been a strong supporter of our congenital heart program at LCH and Sanger. With the Ganatra Initiative for Excellence in Children’s Heart Care, for example, they’ve helped us develop one of the most advanced catherization labs in the region. They wanted to know what kind of technology we needed to bring our care to the next level. And that’s where 3D printing came in.

Q2: How can a 3D model of the heart help a doctor?

A2: By printing a model of the heart, or even a portion of the heart, we can visualize the anatomy in such a way that it allows us to better plan cardiac catherization procedures and better repair complex heart defects when we’re in the operating room. A CT or MRI scan can show only so much.

From a patient education perspective, when we allow a family to hold a physical model of their child’s heart, it’s easier to show them how we can fix it. Before, we’d have to rely on hand drawings. Now, with this physical model, it’s like a light goes off in the parents’ heads and they just get it.

Q3: How do patients benefit from the use of 3D models?

Q3: When 3D models are used to plan procedures, it’s been shown that patients have better outcomes, like shorter lengths of stay in the hospital. That’s why health insurance companies are starting to pay for the creation of these models.

Q4: How is a model created?

Q4: When we decide that a 3D model of a patient’s heart would be helpful, we conduct a series of CT or MRI scans of the patient. I take these scans and sit down with our biomedical engineer, Randall Bissette, and we create a 3D computer model of the heart. This model is then converted to a 3D PDF file, which is sent to the printer.

The printer lays down very thin layers of an acrylic liquid that is then cured with UV light. The liquid hardens into a solid. More and more layers are added, slowly building the 3D model. It can take a few hours up to a whole day to print an entire heart.

Q5: How many 3D models have been printed so far?

A5: Since February, we’ve printed approximately 50 models.

Q6: How unique is the printer your lab is using?

A6: Our printer is a high-quality, medical-grade device that has been deemed by the FDA to be medically accurate. There are only a few of these machines around the country. For example, there are similar printers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami and Children’s Hospital of Cincinnati. I believe we are the biggest healthcare system that is not part of a university with a printer of this quality doing this type of work.

Q7: What is your vision for the lab?

A7: We want to take the collective experience we’re building in the lab and offer it to other congenital heart programs in the region as well as to the adult programs within Sanger to help them care for structural heart disease, including mitral and aortic valve replacements.

We’d also like to extend the program into other specialties across Atrium Health. However, our printer does have limitations because it can only print objects no bigger than a 12-inch cube.

Q8: Can the 3D printer be used to make new “parts” for a heart?

A8: There are many stories out there in the press about 3D printing of organs and tissues, but I think we are quite a few years away from having the ability to print functional pieces of a heart.