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Caterpillar, Illinois Surgeons Team on 3D-Printed Heart Models

3D printed heart
An unlikely pairing between construction machine manufacturing Caterpillar and OSF Healthcare in Illinois is helping doctors perform complex heart surgeries by modeling a patient’s heart using 3D printing.

An unlikely pairing between construction machine manufacturing Caterpillar (CAT) and OSF Healthcare in Illinois is helping doctors perform complex heart surgeries by modeling a patient’s heart using 3D printing.

Physicians from OSF Healthcare sought help from Caterpillar after a chance encounter between Matthew Bramlet, a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s Hospital of Illinois, and a Caterpillar engineer who worked in 3D printing, Bramlet told Design News. The two met during a pediatric residency event that the engineer’s wife was attending. Both companies are headquartered in Peoria, Ill.

A 3D model of a patient’s heart 3D printed by OSF Healthcare through a collaboration with Caterpillar. (Source: Caterpillar)

After a number of conversations about shared objectives around 3D-printing challenges, Bramlet and the engineer realized they had complementary technologies that could be shared to further both company’s goals, he said.

“We had 3D Digital hearts which were exact replicas of patient specific anatomy,” he said. “On several occasions, the learning objective of the 3D physical model was not achievable by our in-house printers. Therefore, we reached out to CAT to utilize their specialized printers to meet the goal.”

Indeed, two years ago, Bramlet began working on the 3D Heart Library for the National Institute of Health 3D Print Exchange, which was developed in collaboration with clinicians from Children’s Hospital of Illinois. Engineers from Jump Simulation segmented and 3D-printed babies and children’s hearts to allow for surgical planning. The models are posted in an online repository of digital reproductions of human hearts through the NIH for others to see and review.

However, while Jump has 3D-printing capabilities, its technology is limited. In a recent case, surgeons benefitted from using Caterpillar’s advanced 3D printing facilities, the Additive Manufacturing Factory, for patients with complex heart problems.

The patient needed a complex heart surgery for a congenital heart defect. Engineers at Caterpillar printed a heart in a soft material that allowed doctors to create an exact replica of the heart, Bramlet said.

“This exact replica was then utilized as the highest level of simulation by allowing the surgeon to investigate the anatomy from the same surgical field perspective and physically perform the surgery on the replica the night before the actual surgery,” he said.

“Since each patient’s congenital defect and anatomy is unique, having the ability to utilize a tool such as this prior to the actual surgery is a great asset,” said Mark Plunkett, a medical doctor and pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Illinois who performed the surgery.  “I was able to remove part of the muscle in the heart and actually see the result by cutting into the model.  The ability to do this expedites the operation by shortening the cardiopulmonary bypass time, the time the heart is stopped, and the length of the overall procedure.”

Plunkett said the patient, who doctors did not name, experienced a rapid recovery and a shortened length of stay in the hospital, with an “excellent overall outcome” thanks to his access to the heart model before the surgery.

Indeed, 3D printing is dramatically improving how surgeons interact with patients, giving them a unique ability to interact with patient-specific anatomic pathologies in 3D to help them make more informed medical decisions, Bramlet said.

The two companies plan to continue collaborating and providing a heart-modeling service to patients free of charge in cases where doctors see the need and believe it can improve their services, he said. They will use the service mainly in very rare cases, which represent about 10 percent of surgeries.

“As we encounter situations where our in-house printers or virtual-reality tools cannot achieve the medical decision-making goals, CAT has generously agreed to provide access to their engineers and printers to print these specialized hearts,” Bramlet said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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