3-D Printing Takes Pediatric Cardiology and Cardiac Surgery to the Next Level

By Tiffany Parnell
Friday, November 18, 2016
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At Penn State Children’s Hospital, the use of 3-D printing to create models of complex heart anatomy provides an effective tool for enhancing surgical outcomes.

Whole-heart 3-D model. Slices were made to allow the intracardiac anatomy to be viewed from the right or left side of the interventricular septum.

Already at the forefront of clinical research, Penn State Children’s Heart Group physicians embarked on a new challenge in late 2015: creating 3-D anatomical replicas of the hearts of children with complex congenital heart defects.

A Collaborative Effort

The creation of 3-D heart models requires the expertise of pediatric cardiologists, cardiac surgeons and radiologists. The first step in model development involves performing a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA). Source data about the heart and vasculature derived from either of these scans form the basis for the model, and physicians use specialized software to manipulate the data as needed to highlight specific areas of interest. This information is then sent to the 3-D printer. Each patient-specific model is built to scale, and printing takes 10–80 hours.


3-D model with the right ventricular free wall removed. RA: right atrium. TV: tricuspid valve annulus. VSD: ventricular septal defect. Neo-Ao: neo-aorta

Penn State Children’s Heart Group has completed two models thus far. In both cases, children had complex ventricular septal defects, and the models were used to better define the relationship between the defect and the outflow tract of the heart.

“The ability to visualize patient-specific anatomy in three dimensions prior to surgery is a great advantage,” says Robert Tunks, MD, pediatric cardiologist at Penn State Children’s Hospital. “As a part of surgical planning, the modeling process also allows us to place patches virtually to correct the defects and, ultimately, see how final results will appear. The technology allows us to be as prepared as possible before we even step into the operating room.”

Dr. Tunks expects that the number of models utilized during surgical planning will continue to grow and believes physicians will use the models to plan surgery for a wider variety of congenital heart defects.

“I’m excited to see what the future holds for this technology,” he says. “Research into the use of 3-D heart models is ongoing, and the potential applications for this technology may be quite profound.”

An Educational Tool

The benefits of 3-D heart modeling extend beyond surgical planning. Penn State Children’s Heart Group physicians also envision using the models to educate other members of the medical team, as well as medical students, residents and other healthcare providers, about congenital heart lesions. In addition, 3-D heart models play an important role in counseling.

“The ability to show parents exactly what their child’s heart looks like is invaluable,” says Robert Tunks, MD, pediatric cardiologist at Penn State Children’s Hospital. “The tool helps parents grasp the situation and better understand the treatments proposed.”

For information about the Children’s Heart Group team and the services available, visit childrens.pennstatehealth.org/children-heart-group.