3D Printed Hearts: Changing the Future of Healthcare

Health |  2 min. read

Let’s say you have to go into the hospital for surgery.

Would you rather have a doctor with experience, or would you rather be your doctor’s very first surgery?  Ok, that’s easy – you’d want the veteran.  But now imagine that your doctor could rehearse – say the day before you go into the operating room?  Even better, yes?

Now let’s make it better still.  Imagine that your doctor can rehearse on you.  Well, “you” – because what your doctor would be using, is a model of your heart, say.  But a model of your actual heart – not a generic heart from the supply room shelf.

That’s possible now, thanks to high-tech polymers and 3-D printing.  (The petrochemical propylene, and acrylics, are used to make the polymers.  The 3D printer turns those plastics into replica hearts, or other parts of our bodies.)

Here’s how it would work: “Before inserting and expanding a pen-sized stent into someone’s aorta, the hose-like artery that carries our blood away from the heart, Doctor Jason Chuen, a vascular (blood vessels) surgeon at Australia’s University of Melbourne, likes to practice on the patient first. …

“He has a 3D printer in his office and brightly colored plastic aortas line his window sill [though it’s true, it looks a bit like a squid]

“… They are all modeled from real patients and printed out from CT scans, ultrasounds, and x-rays.

“’By using the model I can more easily assess that the stent is the right size and bends in exactly the right way when I deploy it,’ says Chuen.”

Think of it as a personalized dress rehearsal for surgery, but the patient only has to show up for the actual operation.

Doctor Chuen’s routine is not routine today, but this has the look of the standard operating procedure of the future, as it were.

And maybe one day, it will not only make for better surgeries – but a great souvenir too, when you get to take home your model aorta after surgery.

That’s before surgery.  But plastics (polymers) and printers are making their way into the operating room as well.

For instance, how about a high-tech plastic skull?   Not a toy skull for Halloween, but a replacement for damaged human bone.  Done.

Earlier this year, a New Jersey man received a 3D printed, plastic skull implant, to replace skull bone damaged by infection.

Doctor Gaurav Gupta used PEEK (polyetheretherketone, which is made from petrochemical building blocks) – to create a customized cranial implant – made specifically for that patient, based on the CT scan of that patient.

As Gupta explained, “PEEK is an inert substance that does not cause an inflammatory reaction, there are no known allergies to it, and it is not rejected by the body.  The implants are also impact-resistant, fracture-resistant, and do not erode or dissolve.”

And yes, the patient’s skin goes over the implant, so as the New Jersey patient put it, “I look exactly the same and feel like myself again.”

That also is happening today, though also not routinely.  Yet.

Now these medical advances depend on many things, but petrochemicals, the chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas, are an essential ingredient of the plastics and other materials that 3D printers are turning into these medical miracles of the future.

Doctor Jason Chuen summed up that future this way, “I think we are moving towards a world where if you can imagine it, you will be able to print it – so we need to start imagining.”

Imagine that.