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MIT researchers 3D print heart replicas that pump like real ones

The soft robotic models are patient-specific and could help clinicians zero in on the best implant for an individual.

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A team of engineers from MIT has developed a new way to create realistic models of human hearts that can help doctors plan and test treatments for various cardiac conditions, tailoring treatments to patients’ specific heart forms and functions, with a custom robotic heart.

The team has developed a procedure to 3D print a soft and flexible replica of a patient’s heart. They can then control the replica’s action to mimic that patient’s blood-pumping ability. The models are 3D printed using a soft and flexible material that mimics the heart’s shape, size, texture, and pumping function. The models could also be used for training and education purposes.

“All hearts are different,” said Luca Rosalia, a graduate student in the MIT-Harvard Program in Health Sciences and Technology. “There are massive variations, especially when patients are sick. The advantage of our system is that we can recreate not just the form of a patient’s heart, but also its function in both physiology and disease.”

Rosalia and his colleagues reported their results in a study published in Science Robotics. MIT co-authors include Caglar Ozturk, Debkalpa Goswami, Jean Bonnemain, Sophie Wang, and Ellen Roche, along with Benjamin Bonner of Massachusetts General Hospital, James Weaver of Harvard University, and Christopher Nguyen, Rishi Puri, and Samir Kapadia at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. You can also find more information and a video on the MIT News website.

The soft robotic heart models are patient-specific and could help clinicians zero in on the best implant for an individual.
The action of the soft, robotic models can be controlled to mimic the patient’s blood-pumping ability. Image credits: Melanie Gonick, MIT

The researchers say that their technique could enable personalized medicine for heart patients, as each model is based on the individual’s own medical images and data. For example, doctors could use the models to determine the optimal size and position of aortic valves for each patient or to test how different drugs affect the heart’s function.

The technique involves first converting medical images of a patient’s heart into a three-dimensional computer model, which the researchers can then 3D print using the polymer-based ink. To do this, they use a custom-built printer that can deposit layers of ink with high precision and resolution.

To make the models more lifelike, the researchers also designed a robotic system that can actuate them with air pressure to simulate their beating motion. The system consists of a chamber filled with air that is connected to tubes attached to various parts of the model. By controlling the amount and timing of air pressure, the system can make the model contract and relax like a real heart.

The researchers have tested their technique on several patient-specific models and found that they closely match the real hearts in terms of shape, size, texture, and function. They have also demonstrated that they can use the models to measure various parameters such as blood flow, pressure, and strain.

The researchers hope that their technique could pave the way for more accurate and personalized diagnosis and treatment of heart diseases. They also plan to improve their technique by incorporating more details such as blood vessels and valves into their models.

“Designing inclusively for a large range of anatomies, and testing interventions across this range, may increase the addressable target population for minimally invasive procedures,” said Professor Ellen Roche, a Co-author of the study. This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Heart Lung Blood Institute.

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