3D Printing a Human Heart-A New Era of Personalized Medicine

The fear of living without a heart is not something people generally think about, doesn’t come to mind when we are at work, school, or doing our regular activities.

But I think this goes for our entire bodies and basically the way we live. I don’t know about you, but I tend to complain alot. Being a 16 year old in school, I dont often think of a reality where I would have to live without a heart or necessary part of my body.

But just because I dont have to go through it, doesn’t mean kids aren’t suffering in silence every single day.

I work in a hospital, so I see alot of cases of patients with rare diseases, that they can’t rely on simple treatments for-one of them being pulmonary vein stenosis.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you will in a minute.

Pulmonary vein stenosis is a rare disease in young children & newborns associated with a high mortality that results in the narrowing of pulmonary veins.

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It often creates pulmonary hypertension & right heart failure. Despite aggressive surgical and catheter-based treatment, survival at 1 year is about 50% for patients with severe stenosis.

For end stage disease, heart-lung or lung transplantation is the only treatment option but it is limited by availability of donor organs.

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Currently there is no medical treatment that slows down the progression of pulmonary vein stenosis. Existing methods like angioplasties or balloon catheters exist, but permanent solutions are still difficult to find for kids with congenital or post repair PVS.

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Narrowed Veins

PVS occurs in two common clinical categories;

  1. Congenital pulmonary vein stenosis (patient has had no previous surgery on the pulmonary veins)
  2. Post repair pulmonary vein stenosis (following previous surgery on pulmonary veins)

Progression of PVS into multiple upstream pulmonary veins basically removes any chance of catheter or chest tune based treatment.

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Plaque built up in pulmonary veins

All this medical jargon really means is that for kids with end stage PVS, the only other option is lung/heart transplant.

This brings in a whole set of other issues. Problems with transplantation especially in young patients isn’t a new thing. But we have yet to find an amazing solution to solve this problem.

Even if kids were to receive an organ, who’s to say their body will accept it? Our bodies are completely different from each other, down to our genetic makeup.

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This means that we can’t just assume sticking an organ inside a patient will solve all these issues, especially when there’s almost a 30% chance that a patient could reject it, if their body cant recognize the organ.

This is where 3D bioprinting comes into the mix😉.

We’ve been looking for so many external solutions to solve this issue of organ donation & personalized medicine. But, what if there was a technology that could use a patients own stem cells to create individualized organs, solving both these problems at the same time?? (Hint; it’s using 3D Printing)

Sooooo how can we do this anyway? I mean how do we actually 3D print an organ? Well, lucky for you I’m breaking it down here.

This past month, I’ve been using conventional 3D printing techniques to create a 3D printed heart from scratch (yup, pretty cool stuff) and working at Autodesk to bring it about.

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A few of the models are still printing up, but I’m going to take you through the process of how I modelled them using CAD software and printed it.

Hopefully we’ll be able use bioprinting techniques instead to revolutionize instead of just normal 3D printing, but that’s where the technology is at now. The process is really similar to 3D printing the lung models (check it out here), so I’m just going to go through a quick runthrough of how I did it.

  1. Building:
  • I knew that in order to do this, I had to sketch out a model so I used the AutoCAD software to do so.
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  • The process is a little different based on each organ constructed, but I did both a heart and a lung for good measure.
  • The reason the modelling stages are so important is because with bioprinting, we can accidentally print models that have defects in them if we don’t take care of that during the modelling process-you are handling a live cell scaffolding after all.
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Bioink used to create 3D organ structures (hearts)
  • So we made sure to be extra careful with the model and smoothed over any possible defects, and even broke it down layer by layer for extra visibility
  • First, I drew the outline of what I wanted to heart to look like & then translated it into a 3D version of that same model using the drawing tool & sweep feature part of the toolkit

This is the final version of how the model turned out😍

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Heart Model using CAD software

2. Deploying & Post-Printing:

  • The second part of this process is the actual 3D printing. For bioprinting techniques, we would have to use a living cell (stem cell in this case) filament to create live versions of the models and provide a scaffolding for the cells to grow/survive on.
  • Bioprinting details the actual printing process, where bioink (a substitute for usual 3D printed ink) is used and deposits the model layer by layer kind of like this gif over here.
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Layer by Layer method of 3D Printing
  • We slowed down the extrusion rate to allow the model to solidify before adding more layers on top to build the heart slowly. The size of the deposits (printed up model) depends on the amount of nozzles & type of model being printed (thickness, complexity).
  • After the model is finished printing up, we used mechanical & chemical stimulation of the organs to create sturdy structures for the material being used.
  • This part is when we can fix up any mistakes made by the printer after the model is finished and chemically change the organ structure/material

There are thousands of kids suffering around the world who have PVS & other rare cardiac conditions we can treat if we just take an innovative leap with technology like 3D printing.

In this day and age, we can do more than ever before. So why are we settling for temporary solutions like catheters, and chest tubes? Why are we condemning kids to a within hospital doors?

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3D printing offers an innovative approach for organ replacement, produced using 3D printing techniques.

The primary use of printable organs is transplantation & personalized medicine. Research is currently being conducted on artificial hearts, kidneys, and liver structures, as well as other major organs.

Just think-what if the next kid who comes to us with PVS or a medical emergency never has to be turned away or have temporary fixes being used on them, they get to have a life outside the hospital, get and education, be a thought leader or contribute to the world.

All because we decided to give them their best shot, a fighting chance through 3D printed, permanent organ structures. That, in my opinion is pretty damn cool and everyday we are gettin closer to that reality, that impact.

I hope you enjoyed the read :). But for now, you can check out my other projects on bleeding edge technology at virtuary.ca or riyam.me.

Until then,

-Riya✌(the 16 y/o obsessed with changing the world)

Written by

I am a 16 year old student who is passionate about biotechnology and international medicine. Currently an innovator at TKS & working with Sick Kids Hospital!

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