3D printing hearts: see how Stratasys is helping change the future of vascular surgery

29th September 2022

Replicating the biomechanics of vascular anatomy

Perfecting bioprinting technology for use in vascular 3D printing has long been the goal of scientists. One that, while in the early stages of development is beginning to reap remarkable rewards.

In this article, we take a look at how Stratasys 3D printing technology is being used to create replica hearts able to “mimic the actual feel, elasticity, responsiveness, and biomechanics of human anatomy”. 

In addition, we look at the educational and planning purposes those anatomical models serve. We also look at the future of vascular 3D printing and how, once perfected, it has the means to change regenerative medicine forever. 

Stratasys donate 3D printers to University of Minnesota Medical School

In 2021, Stratasys donated Stratasys J750 Digital Anatomy 3D printers, as well as MakerBot models to The University of Minnesota Medical School enabling their research team and students to examine, demonstrate, trial and practise using anatomical replicas of the human heart. Dr Paul Iaizzo, professor, Visible Heart Laboratories, University of Minnesota Medical School said:

“By practicing complex surgeries with 3D printed anatomic models, physicians can determine the best surgical approach for each individual patient, which can lead to better patient outcomes, reduced time in surgery, and cost savings for hospitals and healthcare facilities.

“Anatomic models can reflect an individual patient’s demographics, comorbidities, or anatomic details like the accumulation of plaque in an artery or the presence of tumours. With these models, the medical team can easily describe treatment and surgical options with patients, leading to better patient outcomes.”

Owing to the advancement, digital anatomy 3D printers have become a vital part of medical curriculum, laboratories and surgeries.

The world's first 3D printed heart

A global research campaign hit the first landmark in 2019 – to get to the heart of the matter – how do we replicate the human heart for future generations of medical professionals to practise procedures and surgeries?

It worked. The answer. We can now.

Advancements in 3D printing technology and stem cell research enabled a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University to print the “world’s first 3D vascularised engineered heart using a patient’s own cells” for the first time in April 2019. 

Using 3D printed hearts for training and surgical planning

Surgeon holding 3d printed heart created with a stratasys machine

As well as entrenching a new generation of medical personnel in the extraordinary capabilities of 3D printing, the technology allows trained physicians to plan bespoke and effective surgery.

Rich Garrity, President, Americas for Stratasys said:

“We believe that widespread use of 3D printed anatomic models in healthcare would translate into better and more cost-effective patient care and shorter time to market for new medical device innovations. This sponsorship allows us to support the world-class education and medical device research happening in Minnesota.”

Transparency for patients & families

While patients, and also families with loved ones undergoing a heart transplant are not likely to get complete peace of mind ahead of surgery they are able to get much more greater exposure to the process ahead of them, as physicians can use the 3D anatomical models to show both patients and families the process in further detail. 

The future of 3D printing hearts & the crunch question

There is one caveat of and the thing that researchers continue to ask themselves…

How do we 3D print a heart in symbiosis and synchronicity with the human body?

This remains, for the time being, unanswered. While specialists have enabled a 3D part to pull in blood it is not yet able to pump it out. Once that is in the armoury of scientists and they manage to get a heartbeat from a 3D printed heart – then the possibilities get even more exciting, with the life-saving potential to heavily reduce waitlists, reduce transplant rejections, and reduce the complexity of the surgical procedure.

Reducing complexity & cost

Human hearts are delicate, fragile even, and transportation is highly intense and sensitive to time and temperature. There is a lot of time and money that goes into sourcing through to surgery, as well as preparing patients for surgery – the expectation is that the technology could change the face of heart surgery, particularly the costs and complexities associated.

Reducing waitlists

Waitlists can be long and a human heart can be difficult to come by, proving fatal in many cases. There are not enough organs for every transplant, but 3D printing, if perfected, can eventually overcome any shortages or time-restraints on transplants.

Reducing transplant rejections

Following a heart transplant, up to 80% of patients experience at least one rejection episode. In almost 20% of all heart transplants, the rejection proves fatal. Scientists hope and believe that the future means human hearts can be printed to function within the human body. Dr Paul Iaizzo remains optimistic:

“We need to develop the printed heart further. The cells need to form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together. Our hope is that we will succeed and prove our method’s efficacy and usefulness.

“Maybe, in ten years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely.”

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