3D printed heart.
Photograph by Bryce Vickmark
By Barb Darrow
September 17, 2015

Heart surgery, obviously, is tricky business. Abnormalities can be hidden and so operating to correct them can be like dealing with a black box. And in the case of childrens’ hearts, a very tiny, delicate black box. Not a good thing.

To eliminate as much guesswork as possible in advance of surgery, researchers have been constructing accurate heart models using 3D printers and measurement data from MRI scans. The problem: The process is slow. It can take up to 10 hours to finesse the internal boundaries that separate the heart chambers and vessels. Those intersections don’t necessarily show up clearly in MRIs so doctors relied on a manual process to fill in the blanks, so to speak. And that takes time.

Now, researchers from MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital say they’ve come up with a better, faster way to build heart models, according to MIT Tech News. Part of their work relies on new processes that enhance the precision of the scans, which are basically a set of cross sections that together comprise a 3D image of the heart or other structure.

But even the scan data is not enough. Researchers often used generic heart representations to supply additional data needed to build the full model. The problem there is generic models aren’t much help in recreating what is likely a heart with anomalies all its own.

The proposed solution, as is often the case with complex data problems, still draws on human expertise, but in a much more curtailed way than before.

According to the report, project leader Polina Gollan, professor of engineering and computer science at MIT, said this limited human input greatly increases accuracy of the model.

The “strongest results came when they asked the expert to segment only a small patch—one-ninth of the total area—of each cross section,” she said.

With these advances, the team can create the algorithm needed and print the model in three or four hours, compared to the 10 needed before.

The team, which also includes Medhi Moghari, a physicist who came up with new processes to enhance the MRI scan precision; Andrew Powell, a cardiologist; and Danielle Pace, an MIT grad student in electrical engineering and computer science, will put their work to test in a study kicking off this fall using MRIs from 10 patients at Children’s Hospital. Pace will also present a related paper at a medical conference next month.

This is just the latest application of advanced 3D printing and materials to create medical devices including prosthetic devices.

For more on 3D printing, please check out the video.

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