3D Printing in Action: Dissecting Hearts in Labs

Out of all the exciting applications of additive manufacturing, medical science has the most promising future. Nothing drives technological development more than the need to save lives. Because 3D printing creates more accurate and precise models than anything done by hand, it is a perfect match when attempting to work with the organic geometries of the human body. In the biomedical field, 3D printing is used mainly to create surgical tools, custom-made prosthetics, organoids and bio-tissues, and patient-specific surgical models, all of which improve patient outcomes. Being able to hold complex cardiovascular structures in your hand is an excellent way to learn outside of a human chest cavity. 

The Need for Dissecting Hearts in Labs

Medical students must know human anatomy, as well as London cab drivers, know Piccadilly traffic. However, the interconnected systems and complex organs of the human body are difficult to envision without a three-dimensional aid. Historically, dissection was the best way to learn about human anatomy, but using medical cadavers is a cumbersome and difficult process. Alternately, Imaging technology can only go so far when studying complex organs with layered parts and overlapping tissues such as the heart. So, 3D printed models of the heart for dissection are a valuable lab tool. 

The Process of Creating 3D-Printed Heart Models

Like all 3D prints, a cardiovascular model has to start with a blueprint. Instead of something drawn by hand, though, the model starts with heart scan data from precise imaging techniques such as MRI, X-ray, or CT scans. The data from these personalized scans will be layered into a digital 3D model that can be printed in a wide variety of materials, including biomaterials. 3D printed organs use alginate or fibrin polymers, or typically materials with some elasticity. The wonderful thing about the iterative process of 3D design is that the 3D cardiovascular model can be refined for functionality and accuracy, and dissections can be done from the same scan many times over. 

Advantages of 3D-Printed Heart Models for Dissection

The heart is one of the most complex organs in the body. As one of our vital organs, it’s paramount that surgeons and doctors are intimately familiar with all of its parts. Realistic representation in a 3D printed cardiovascular model is a huge boon when both visualizing and manipulating the structures of the body. The accuracy is unparalleled when dissecting a heart model, which leads to medical students’ deeper understanding of the structure and its functions. The spatial relationships between the major blood vessels in the heart are difficult to envision unless you learn about them hands-on. By accurately reproducing the organ’s geometry, doctors are able to conduct a range of new testing and simulations to devise potential treatment options. 3D printed replicas of hearts allow physicians to evaluate and interact with patient anatomy in ways 2D images cannot. When working with pathologies, too, the 3D printed cardiovascular model is useful as students are able to work with specific rare pathologies that they may not normally encounter in the operating room. These aren’t just the plastic models of your high school science class; these 3D printed models are cutting-edge reproductions of the real thing. 

Case Studies: Success Stories in Education and Research

In 2020, Carnegie Mellon University was the first to utilize bioprinted hearts for education. A team there perfected the technique of printing the 3D cardiovascular models into biomaterial that realistically mimics the elasticity of cardiac tissues and structures, whereas before 3D prints had to be in rubber or plastic. Surgeons are now able to dissect and perform surgeries on the 3D printed heart models and have the tissues respond as they would in real life. 

The Journal of Biological Education has also published a study showing the efficacy of using 3D printed models in class to increase engagement and improve student learning outcomes. In the study, students are taught about scientific concepts with 3D models and without and then quizzed on the subject. In instances where 3D models were utilized, students showed a higher level of understanding of the subject after engaging with the 3D printed models as part of the lesson. 

Future Directions and Challenges 

Right now, the challenge with 3D printing organ models is tissue fidelity. We can 3D print the anatomical parts correctly in plastic or rubber, but getting the tissue to respond as it would in the body is difficult. As materials evolve and blend and we are able to create biomaterials that more accurately mimic human tissues, 3D printed bio-models will become more prevalent. This will lead to an expansion in the use of 3D printed organs in medical education, creating the surgeons of the future. And, as the cost of 3D printers decreases, access to medical technology will become more accessible to all.