Feb 24, 2016 | By Tess

For the past decade coronary heart diseases have remained one of the world’s top causes of death, with over 7.4 million succumbing to heart related diseases in 2012. As arteries, which carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body, a vital part of our circulatory system, become clogged from various causes such as fatty foods, smoking, or genetic tendencies, our bodies can cease to function properly. For years doctors have struggled to cure or prevent heart disease, but now thanks to advanced technologies and collaborations between medical experts and engineers, we may be closer than ever to finding the solution.


Associate Professor Peter Barlis examines a 3-D printed heart artery. The ability to 3-D model the intricacies of the human heart are giving cardiologists incredible new insight into heart disease. All images CREDIT: The University of Melbourne

Recently, a team of doctors and engineers from the University of Melbourne have collaborated in an effort to better understand and gain insight into human arteries by using 3D imaging and 3D printing technologies to recreate models of patients’ heart arteries. The information gained from the technology and the detailed 3D printed models of the arteries are also allowing doctors to create custom fitted stents, which are mesh tubes that are fitted into clogged or collapsing arteries to facilitate blood flow.

The interventional cardiology team at St. Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, perform an angiogram procedure on a patient with heart disease. A tiny camera is fed through the artery to capture data that is then analyzed by engineers at the University of Melbourne.

The imaging data used to create the detailed 3D models of a patient’s artery is captured by a super high-resolution camera no bigger than a human hair which is dispatched in the arteries during a routine angiogram. The imaging technique is known as optical coherence tomography or OCT and helps doctors to better understand blood flows and locate blocked areas. While an angiogram can capture a 2D mapping and imaging of the arteries, the doctors can now essentially 3D scan the interior of the artery to gain detailed insight into how much plaque or cholesterol might be blocking it. Once the images have been captured from inside the patient’s body, the data is sent to a supercomputer which generates an accurate 3D model of the arteries that can be 3D printed.

Associate professor Barlis explains, “Using our ultra-sensitive heart scans combined with models derived using supercomputers, we are now able to print out segments of the patient’s arteries and we hope to tailor devices to fit them perfectly…We’ve gone to our engineers and created 3D models looking at a million data points in the artery. We’re getting very useful data on potentially predicating sites within the arteries in the heart that may be prone to future complications. And much like debris accumulates along a riverbank, plaque can cling to certain areas of a person’s artery. So this technology really gives us a clearer picture of those areas.”

Images captured from inside a heart artery using Optical Coherence Tomography technology.

The 3D printing of the artery model is being done in association with the University of Wollongong’s ARC Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science, which can have the artery additively manufactured within a day. As mentioned, the technology will currently be used to determine and create the best possible stent for a particular patient, but the team behind the recent technology have big aspirations for the future.

As Associate professor Barlis explains, “We ideally want to use the models to predict the best type of stent for a patient. Once this process is streamlined, we can have a patient on the table and an artery 3D printed and modelled to guide the procedure.” In other words, they are hoping to develop the technology to the point where an artery model can be printed on the spot, during the actual surgery.

Mechanical engineer Professor Andrew Ooi's team is using computer modelling to understand how 3D printed heart stents will affect blood flow in the artery. Picture: Paul Burston.

Ultimately, the team of researchers are hoping to eventually be able to 3D print custom stents out of a biocompatible polymer so that they can be custom fitted and slowly disintegrate and even deliver drugs to the artery in the patient’s body. “When someone has a heart attack it’s usually due to a blood clot forming,” explains Dr. Thondapu, a medical doctor pursuing his PhD with Professor Barlis. “We use stents to prop open the vessel, but these stents stay there permanently. The artery usually heals itself and turns into scar tissue and in the vast majority of cases, the vessel only needs a temporary scaffold, so we are very interested in new generation stents that can be absorbed.”

The research to develop these 3D printed biocompatible stents is currently underway, as Professor Barlis and his team of researchers have two Australian Research Council grants to pursue the work. Dr Thondapu predicts the technology will be widespread within just a few years.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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