The technology, pediatric cardiologist Laura Olivieri says, “is amazing.”
Olivieri says that holding the replica of a heart enables her to make connections that she could not when looking at the actual organ on a computer screen.
“Because you’ve got a three-
dimensional problem,” she says. “What we’re all trying to do is reconstruct how far away X and Y are. But now you can just take [the model], and hold it, and look at it, and say, ‘Oh, they’re that far away.’ ”
In one recent case, Olivieri used a 3-D printer-produced model that she could take apart before the patient’s surgery.
“The cardiac anatomy of this patient is very rare,” said Olivieri. “And it’s not like there’s an FDA-designed device that will solve it.” The model allowed her to “look at the anatomy in 3-D and do some practice runs where the patient isn’t involved.”
To help prep a surgeon who needed to close the hole in an infant’s heart, Axel Krieger, a biomedical robotic expert at the center’s Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, created a model that used a mix of hard and soft plastics so the replica would feel like a real heart.
“We found the perfect combination of materials that actually allows you to place a suture through it or stick a needle through it,” Krieger said. “It feels similar to tissue. You can make a valve soft but the surrounding tissue hard, and then the bone really hard. So you can have different levels of the mechanical properties.”
He and his colleagues also modeled a dislocated spine by printing hard plastic vertebrae with softer, jellylike disks in between, so that it moved realistically, enabling doctors to better understand the injury.
Children’s hopes to use the printer to create models for patients with rare or complicated conditions, and for those who need corrective procedures on complex congenital defects.
“Congenital heart disease is so structural,” Olivieri said. “On some level, you can predict what a physiology is by looking at [a patient’s] anatomy. So a picture can predict how sick or how well a patient can be. That makes congenital heart disease one of the perfect applications for 3-D printing.”
Printing ears, and a partial face
Once used primarily by industrial companies for creating prototypes of such things as cars and jewelry, three-dimensional printing has expanded into much wider use in recent years. People are printing guitars, airplane parts — even guns. One man has used a 3-D printer to make more 3-D printers. Last week, Staples announced that customers will soon be able to print 3-D objects in its stores.