3D printing helps our experts plan complex surgery

Patient holding a 3D model of his heartOur specialist can now use 3D imaging and printing to create exact replicas of patients' hearts to help them plan and carry out surgery. 

The technique requires specialist cardiovascular magnetic resonance (CMR) imaging, which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to take hundreds of detailed pictures of the heart. From these, an exact 3D digital replica is created, allowing clinicians to view the patient’s entire heart structure – including muscles, chambers and valves. 

But experts at the Trust are going one step further, using 3D printing to turn the digital replica into an exact model of a patient’s heart. The techniques are used in diagnosing and treating conditions such as congenital heart disease, wear and tear of heart valves, and other types of damage.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, honorary consultant cardiologist and British Heart Foundation Imperial College clinical senior lecturer, is interested in the role of CMR in preventing and treating heart rhythm disturbances in patients born with congenital heart disease, as well as using 3D imaging during invasive heart procedures.

She said: “The availability of 3D modelling when preparing for and performing heart surgery or other cardiac procedures allows surgeons and other clinicians to better grasp how a patient’s heart is affected by their condition. This leads to better care and allows us to diagnose and repair conditions with less need for invasive diagnostic procedures. 

“Secondly, a 3D model can be a huge help with the communication between the clinical team and the patient. A 3D visual representation of the heart is so much clearer than anything we could put into words.

“Coming in for surgery can be a worrying time for a patient, so we always like to fully explain what will happen to help put their mind at rest as much as possible.”

A further advantage of producing a 3D model of the human heart is improved training opportunities. Heart disease comes in many different forms, and the more cardiologists can learn about the structure of hearts with these problems, the better they can treat them.

Trainees can also practise on exact replicas of hearts, including ones with congenital disease. The models used for this training are made of material that allows doctors to simulate a real-life situation. Some even look like a real human heart under x-ray.

Jonathan Havre is a Royal Brompton patient with repaired tetralogy of fallot, one of the most common congenital heart conditions, which is characterised by four structural defects in the heart. As an adult, Jonathan’s CMR images were used for his electrophysiology procedure, to see how ‘at risk’ he was of heart rhythm disturbance related to scars in his heart caused by previous operations. 

Inside a 3D model of a heart
Inside a 3D model of a heart

The team used the CMR images to produce detailed prints of his heart muscle, including scarred areas, and were able to show him a 3D printed life size model of his own heart.

He said: “I found the model of the heart gave me a real understanding of what was happening. It really put me at ease knowing exactly what my heart looks like. 

“It is sometimes hard to picture what I’m being told. With the 3D model I could hold my own heart, an experience I never thought I’d have.”

Dr Babu-Narayan is certain 3D technology will feature more prominently in the hospitals of the future.
“Across the world techniques are continually evolving. Some healthcare settings are testing virtual reality headsets, which let clinicians become fully immersed in the digital image of the scan away from a computer screen.

"There is also interactive 3D technology that combines the tactile advantages of a printed model with the immense detail offered by the digital image. The future really is bright in this revolutionary field." 

Next: First UK patient has pioneering procedure to fix leaking heart valve >