Heart surgery is a difficult kind of operation for surgeons to perform, but it even becomes more complicated when a child’s heart is object of surgery. The hearts of young children are automatically smaller and more complex than grown-up counterparts. However, a miracle wasn’t needed to help 14-month-old boy Lian Cung Bawi with his failing heart. Fortunately, a 3D printer used to print out a 3D model of the failing heart, was able to help out the boy.
University of Louisville Physicians’s heart surgeon Erle Austin at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville is well-experienced in performing surgery. Nevertheless, it was very clear to him that this particular operation on a young heart would implicate a high risk, due to the fact a young heart consists of tiny internal structures which are hard to see clearly.
Therefore, he went to J.B Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville, where a computer model generated by the boy’s radiologist was used to print out three bigger versions of cross-sections of the boy’s heart. The team chose for three versions, as a heart model cut into thirds would provide a better view for the surgeons. This computer model was made using as many as thousands of cross-sections of hospital X-rays.
Then a MakerBot Replicator 2X was used in order to print out the digital 3D model. Using layer-by-layer techniques, 3D printed models of the heart could be made. Per inch, the MakerBot 3D printer assembled as many as 250 layers of plastic and it resulted in models of cross-sections of the heart which were two times the actual size of the original one, with the purpose of providing a better view of the heart for the surgical team.
This helped the surgeons to get a better idea of what the boy’s heart looked like. Because they could study this 3D version of the heart, the team was able to cut down in operating time and reduce exploratory surgeries. In addition, follow-up operations weren’t required anymore. Austin told the Courier Journal: “Once I had a model, I knew exactly what I needed to do and how I could do it. It was a tremendous benefit.”
The surgery took place on February 10 and it became the first use of 3D printing for a pediatric heart patient in Kentucky. The MakerBot printer used for the operation only costed 2,500 dollars and the printed cross-sections of the heart had a total cost of merely 600 dollars in materials. Since the prices of 3D printers have increased, it becomes easier for professionals to use such techniques.
Thanks to such developments, also an invention called ‘bioprinting’ has helped the biomedical world. The technique goes way beyond the principles of the heart project, as it works with actual 3D printed functional living tissues. San Diego based company Organovo is currently working on a human tissues project. Keith Murphy, who is their CEO, has stated the following about it on the Organovo website:
“Researchers who develop new therapies for patients are too often hampered by animal models and traditional cell culture models that are poor predictors of drug efficacy and toxicity in human beings. Our 3D printer creates living human tissues that more closely reproduce in vivo human tissues.”
Another recent example of bioprinting comes from the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla in California, where Dr. Darryl D’Lima is working on a prototype bioprinter which is set to be able to print living cartilage into the human body. Cartilage is the tissue which cushions knee joints. If it does not regenerate automatically then it results in a lot of pain for the patient. In case someone would have a knee injury, then today doctors would advice the person to deal with the pain until an artificial joint has been made, causing pain and being ineffective.
However, Dr. D’Lima’s prototype bioprinter is quite comprehensive, as it “spews out both cartilage progenitor cells and a biocompatible liquid that will congeal in the presence of ultraviolet light. In addition, the device can print bone cells necessary to deposit where cartilage attaches to bone,” according to newswebsite RedOrbit.
One more example of bioprinting: Missouri company Modern Meadow uses an entirely different approach for the tissues technique. This company is using tissues in order to print out leather and meat. Even though the company is not that far yet, it expects to be able to print out leather in about two years, while meat will take a little longer.
How does this work? The technique Modern Meadow is experimenting with taking cells from donor animals that are being isolated and modified, after which they are being multiplied in a bioreactor. After a process of centrifugation and aggregation they are being fused together and put into the bioreactor again in order to mature – which takes several weeks. So in the future we might say: who needs butchers for meat? Or, a more daring statement: who needs animals for meat?
Credits images: Courier Journal.