3D-printed hearts could herald new way to treat patients, say MIT engineers

10 Mar 2023

Image: © Iuliia/Stock.adobe.com

As well as improving patient outcomes, the medical device industry could potentially use the 3D heart replicas to conduct testing.

Engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have devised a way to 3D print a replica of the human heart that could have a significant impact on tailored treatments for people with heart issues.

The engineers behind the discovery are hoping that it can help doctors tailor treatments to patients’ specific heart form and function.

The 3D-printed hearts are soft and flexible, and they can be controlled by researchers to mimic a patient’s blood-pumping ability.

The process of making one of these 3D heart replicas begins with converting medical images of a patient’s heart into a three-dimensional computer model.

The 3D-printing approach also works for printing patient’s aortas. The engineers were able to use medical scans of 15 patients diagnosed with aortic stenosis as their source material.

From the computer model, the researchers can then 3D print the replica hearts using a polymer-based ink. The result is a soft, flexible shell in the exact shape of the patient’s own heart. It can squeeze and stretch like the real thing.

To mimic the heart’s pumping action, the team fabricated sleeves similar to blood pressure cuffs that wrap around the printed heart and aorta.

The underside of each sleeve is a little bit like precisely patterned bubble wrap. When the sleeve is connected to a pneumatic system, researchers can tune the outflowing air to inflate the sleeve’s bubbles and pump the heart.

There is a similar sleeve for the printed aorta, which works to constrict the vessel. This constriction can be tuned to mimic aortic stenosis.

Patients with aortic stenosis often have narrower than normal aortic valves, which means the heart has to work harder to pump blood to the body.

Doctors often treat aortic stenosis by surgically implanting a synthetic valve designed to widen the aorta’s natural valve.

According to the MIT engineers behind this 3D heart replica discovery, doctors could use their new procedure to print a patient’s heart and aorta, before implanting a variety of valves into the printed model to see which design results in the best function and fit for that particular patient.

The heart replicas could also be used by research labs and the medical device industry as realistic platforms for testing therapies for various types of heart disease.

“All hearts are different,” said Luca Rosalia, a graduate student in the MIT-Harvard programme in Health Sciences and Technology who worked on the project.

“There are massive variations, especially when patients are sick. The advantage of our system is that we can recreate not just the form of a patient’s heart, but also its function in both physiology and disease.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic