MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital Can Now Make 3-D Prints of Hearts

They can produce accurate models of surgical MRI scans within hours.

3D-printed heart

A 3-D-printed heart. Photo by Bryce Vickmark, provided.

Heart surgery is performed all the time in the United States. But despite its relative frequency, the operation is notoriously tricky to plan and undergo.

Now, MIT and Boston’s Children’s Hospital may be able to help ease the process. Researchers from the two institutions designed a system for converting surgical MRI scans into highly accurate, 3-D-printed models of the heart in a matter of hours. Using the models could allow surgeons to plan procedures in a way they can touch, feel, and see—and that they can show patients.

Project leader Polina Golland, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, said in a statement that medical 3-D printing could improve operation processes for surgeons, who are often used to learning through tangible experiences. “Our collaborators are convinced that this will make a difference,” she said in the statement. “The phrase I heard is that ‘Surgeons see with their hands,’ that the perception is in the touch.”

The new technique is so important because hearts vary widely from person to person, especially so for those who require cardiac surgery. A more physically personalized way to plan operations may help reduce error, Golland said in the statement. The team also predicts that 3-D printing will help alleviate some of the technical difficulties and limitations associated with planning heart operations using images on a computer screen.

Later this month, Golland’s team will reveal its design at the International Conference on Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention. The models will also be the subject of a study completed later this fall by seven cardiac surgeons at Boston Children’s.