Holding Your Child’s “Heart” In Our Hands … With The 3D Heart Printer (Part 2)

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In Part 1, I wrote about how surgeons use 3D printers to print models of kids’ hearts as a way to prepare for surgery. This technology has enormous potential for improving outcomes for kids with congenital heart defects (CHD). 

In this second installment, R. Gabe Linke, Cardiac CT/MR Imaging & 3D Printing Coordinator at Children’s, explains his role in 3D printing, and how this technology helps heart kids.

Q: How does the printer work?

R. Gabe Linke: It’s actually just like your regular inkjet printer. However, instead of laying down dots of ink, it lays down dots of plastic.

It lays down one layer, which is one slice of the heart. Then it goes back and does another layer, and another, and so on until it has built a complete model of the heart.

Q: What is your role in printing?

Gabe: I have worked on about a dozen 3D hearts, and I oversee the whole process. I’m the person who takes the initial images, creates and prints the models, and then makes the final product.

But it’s not a one-person job. Surgeons and cardiologists work together to make the perfect  models. CT and MRI technologists acquire the images. We’re all part of a team.

Q: What would you say is the most impressive part of this technology?

Gabe: I’ve seen so many developments in the short time I’ve been doing cardiac imaging and 3D printing. The ability to hold an organ that is an exact replica of one working inside a living body still blows me away.

When 3D printing first began, you had to order the heart models from an outside company. Now, hospitals have their own printers, which makes the turnaround time much quicker.

Q: What is the turnaround time to create a printed heart model?

Gabe: It depends on the case, but it’s actually fairly quick. It can be done within 24 hours.

3D heart

Q: What is the biggest challenge when it comes to 3D printing?

Gabe: The technology takes a while to learn, but in most hospitals, the biggest challenge is the upfront cost. They have to pay staff to train and operate the printer. Then of course, there’s the price of the printer itself.

The type of printer we use starts at about $100,000, but they can go up to the million-dollar range depending on what size of objects you plan to print. The heart models are actually fairly inexpensive, though—they range from $50 to $350 apiece.

Q: That’s definitely pricey. Does that mean these printers are pretty rare?

Gabe: Yes—as far as I know, we’re currently the only hospital in Omaha with this type of printer. If other hospitals are interested in the technology but don’t want to spend the money right away, we are open to doing trial prints for them to see the benefits of 3D printing.

We’re dedicated to helping patients, even if they’re not at Children’s. We’re always happy to help others out.

Q: How do you think the 3D models improve care?

Gabe: What we do can improve outcomes for patients. Actually giving a model to a surgeon that he can stitch on, practice routes in the heart he wants to take, hold it in his hands—it’s so much different than just looking at a screen.

When you hold it in your hand, you can understand it so much more. That may lead to fewer complications and better outcomes—and that makes it amazing.

Q: Are there any cases in particular that stand out to you?

Gabe: Yes, one of our most recent ones. We were operating on a heart the size of a strawberry. It blew my mind thinking about that—it’s so, so small.

I was able to actually blow it up bigger when I printed it out, so the surgeon could get a better look at a defect that was so rare. It would have been very difficult to look at on a screen.

It was a huge success. We typically do life-sized models, but for this case, with such a small heart, it made a big difference to print it larger. Dr. Jim Hammel performed the surgery, and he said it was very beneficial to have that larger model to examine beforehand.

Q: Where is the technology heading right now? Is there anything you specifically want to see?

Gabe: It’s rapidly changing. Currently, our printer can only print one material and one color at a time, but other printers are even more advanced. Think of a pair of sunglasses. With another type of printer, you could print the whole thing—lenses, frames—in one piece at one time.

The technology is growing exponentially. It’s just a matter of figuring out what we can do with it, and what printers can print what.

Q: Do you see it going into other fields besides cardiology?

Gabe: We’ve talked to the Orthopedics Department. The printing is really good for re-creating complex fractures and other anomalies.

I could see it being helpful in neurology and possibly in plastic surgery. Honestly, the technology could have benefits in almost any specialty. It is only a matter of time before we discover all the ways it will affect healthcare.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Barb Roessner

Hi, I'm Barb, and I'm a Physician Assistant and coordinator of the Heart Failure and Transplant Program at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. I work with patients and families at every step of the journey, from diagnosing their child's heart condition to my favorite part—calling them to say "We have a heart."

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