"To be able to have a structure of the heart in front us and be able to hold it in our hands and to be able to test the new devices that we're developing is really a miracle," says Dr. Paul Wang.
The key to creating these 3D models is a state of the art printer that looks something like a supersized microwave oven. Wang believes the combination of software and engineering that produces a nearly perfect copy of a patient's heart could revolutionize medicine.
First, CT scans capture multiple views of the heart as a series of slices.
"And the next step after that is to take this data and select out what data we want to make our 3D model out of," says research fellow Jeff Caves, Ph.D.
Caves says that engineers ultimately layer the CT images and their corresponding measurements onto sophisticated CAD software, similar to what architects use to create blueprints for buildings, slowly translating them into an accurate computer model to guide the 3D printer.
"All these angles represent surfaces and it's full 3D at this point," he explains.
Using reams of plastic, the 3D printer then reproduces the heart in a process that takes several hours. The results from the point of view of a cardiologist are stunning.
"It's revolutionary," says Wang. "One can leave the settings overnight and come back the next day and have a completed heart. You can see the exceptional detail, the structures that hold the valves in place."
Wang says the models are so accurate that surgeons could potentially scale and fit devices ranging from catheters to coronary stents to the precise dimensions of an individual's heart. The technology could allow doctors to test different surgical strategies in advance, before a patient ever enters the operating room.
"There's a lot of different ways we could do it," he explains. "We can have different tools that deliver new valves and other devices to different parts of the heart. They're all different approaches that we're going to see an explosion of in the future."
There is also intense research underway across the country using 3D printing technology combined with living cells and other biological material. The goal is to someday construct functioning human organs.