Specialists are using three dimensional (3D) imaging and printing to create exact replicas of patients’ hearts, to help them plan and carry out surgery.

The technique requires specialist cardiovascular magnetic resonance (CMR) imaging, which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to take detailed pictures of an individual’s heart.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, honorary consultant cardiologist and clinical senior lecturer at Imperial College London, is interested in the role of CMR in preventing and treating heart rhythm disturbances in patients born with congenital heart disease, as well as using 3D imaging during invasive heart procedures.

She says:

The availability of 3D models could be extremely helpful when preparing for and performing heart surgery or other cardiac procedures. Clinicians are able to better grasp how a patient’s heart is affected by their condition. This allows us to diagnose conditions with less need for invasive diagnostic procedures and to plan repairs better.

A 3D model can also be a huge help with the communication between the clinical team and the patient. A 3D visual representation of the heart is so much clearer than anything we could put in to words. If we have an electronic 3D model of a patient’s heart we can store this on their record - an invaluable tool for follow-up appointments.

Already, colleagues and active members of our 3D imaging and printing programme have used models in clinical decision making and treatment such as Dr Sabine Ernst.”

A consultant speaks to a patient who has had part of his heart 3D printed.

Groundbreaking innovation: scarring of the heart

The 3D programme at Royal Brompton Hospital, supported by biomedical engineers Materialise, recently did something that no other hospital in the world has done, which was to print hearts that also show regions of scarring.

Scarring, often caused by heart disease or surgery, is one of the reasons that patients may have life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia, a condition where the heart is beating too fast, slow or irregularly.

At Royal Brompton Hospital, using 3D modelling, consultants and surgeons can gain a better understanding of what kind of scarring causes different types of arrhythmia. This research is invaluable for improving future treatments for similar patients. The aim is to prevent patients from requiring a defibrillator as a precaution, and to only implant the lifesaving device when it is certain that they need one.