3D heart model
A 3D-printed model of a heart. Photo credit: World Economic Forum / YouTube (Creative Commons Attribution license - reuse allowed)

3D printers have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons — like creating illegal guns. Here’s a use which is nothing but good.

Practice makes perfect, and the smartest among us would agree that no one should ever stop learning. Doctors lead from the front in this regard — constantly ensuring they are up to date with advances in technology and medicine. Now they are taking this to another level. Surgeons are able to practice heart surgery on their individual patients — not by slicing them open, but by using the technology of 3D printing.

Heart surgery is a pretty serious undertaking — a one-and-done situation with little room for error; because of this the most experienced heart surgeons are in high demand. Patients want a clutch surgeon who knows what she’s doing, after all.

But advances in technology have turned many instances of heart surgery from highly invasive operations into keyhole procedures. Surgeons use catheters — long tubes — that they watch on monitors as they manipulate them to perform the repairs needed. Now there is another level of technology that can improve the outcome of such surgery: 3D printing means surgeons can practice on exact models of the heart they will be operating on. This practice increases the odds of success since the surgeon has a better idea of what she will be working with before even making a single incision.  

Hospitals like the one shown in this week’s video take an ultrasound scan of the heart in question, with all its individual intricacies, and print a 3D model that the surgeon can study and practice the procedure on.

As Dr. Mark Reisman of the University of Washington explains, it helps him and his colleagues “understand the nuances — both the nuances of the heart but also how the anatomy within the heart is related to other structures.” Good news for the patient, certainly, and a far more positive use for this technology than the one that has been grabbing headlines: — creating undetectable guns.

This week’s first video shows Dr. Reisman and colleagues, with one of the printed hearts.

The second explains exactly how the magic of 3D printing happens, and shows other items that the printing method has been used to create.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from surgeons (US Air Force) and heart (VOA / YouTube).


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