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

MIT researchers have developed a new method for 3D printing custom, patient-specific replicas of a heart that could be used by surgeons to plan and practice complex procedures. The researchers used a flexible material that mimics the texture of real heart tissue and printed the replica using a multi-material inkjet 3D printing process.

According to Andrew Capulli, a postdoc at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, “surgeons often have to rely on their imagination to visualize a surgery from a 2D image, and it’s not always accurate.” The team’s goal was to create a replica that would allow surgeons to practice the surgery beforehand and get a better understanding of the procedure.

The replica is made from MRI data and printed with two different materials: a soft, flexible material that mimics heart tissue, and a hard material that provides structural support. Capulli says that “the materials and methods we used were important because we needed the replica to be flexible enough to mimic heart tissue but also strong enough not to deform during surgical manipulation.”

The team’s research, which was published in the journal Soft Robotics, shows that the replicas could be used to plan and practice surgeries on patients with congenital heart defects. According to Ellen Roche, an assistant professor at MIT and one of the study’s authors, “if you have a child with a complex heart defect, they may have had several surgeries already and you don’t want to put them through another surgery unless you’re fairly sure of the outcome.”

The team believes that these replicas could also be used to train medical students and residents in cardiac surgery. Roche notes that “it’s hard to train for something that’s so complex and different for each patient. Having a physical model that’s specific to that patient could be very useful.”

While the technology is still in the experimental phase and requires more research and testing before it can be used in a clinical setting, the researchers are hopeful that it could one day become a standard tool for cardiac surgeons. Capulli says that “it’s exciting to think that these replicas could help improve patient outcomes and surgical training.”

Via The Impactlab