3D printing at the UW is changing the face of medicine

Growing technology allows cardiologists to hold a patient’s heart before operating

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The UW is known for its strong medical program and leading research in the U.S. When these two characteristics are combined, it makes sense that some incredible innovations in the medical field come to be.

At the forefront of medical technology at the UW right now is the Center for Cardiovascular Innovation (CCVI). The center was founded in 2017, and it has already worked on countless projects focused on speeding up and improving the process of treatment for cardiovascular diseases.

One project stands out in particular, and it is pushing the UW further to the forefront of medical technology. Scientists at the CCVI are utilizing 3D printing to build hearts for practice on individualized patient procedures.

The process uses stereolithography and digital light processing printers that expose liquid resin to light, turning it solid.

“Generally, we start out with a patient’s specific medical data, which comes from things such as CT or MRI, and then we translate that data into a model,” Dmitry Levin, a lab scientist on the project, explained.

Once the model of a patient’s heart is created, they are handed off to practitioners like Dr. Mark Reisman, cardiologist and director of the CCVI. With these replicas, practitioners can then decide the approach they want to use based on the unique structure of the heart.

“It allows us on some level to even practice,” Reisman said. “We can be able to judge what challenges we may have once we’re in there.”


Physicians have been able to perform several new procedures that would be difficult to practice without use of the models.

A patient recently came to the UW Medical Center requiring a catheter procedure to be performed in a non-traditional way due to extensive past surgeries. Physicians practiced the newer method on a model of the patient’s heart.

“We really got a sense of what all the angles are, and what all the nuances would be,” Reisman said. “She had that procedure a few weeks ago and had a stunning result.”

The procedure could be practiced much more easily and at length on a printed model because of its resilience as compared to a cadaver heart. “We were always extremely careful about how people handled [cadaver specimens] because they are easily torn,” Reisman said.

Apart from just reliability of the material, the printed hearts have another significant advantage over cadaver hearts. “One of the greatest strengths right now of the 3D printed model is the fact that it’s actually a patient-specific model,” Levin said.

The structure of every human heart is never exactly the same, so physicians are able to get much more information from a specific model than they are from a general cadaver specimen.

“It reduces the vulnerability a physician may have when there’s uncertainty about what to expect,” Reisman said.


Depending on their training, medical specialists can also face difficulties in communication about the anatomy of the heart they are working on. “By having a model in front of them, that gives them an opportunity to make sure that they are using the exact same language,” Levin said.

The continued development of the technology has also had an impact on education for medical students at the UW. The School of Medicine has received models for use in its cardiovascular unit in addition to the cadaver hearts that are typically used for teaching students.

As far as the future of the project goes, Reisman and Levin agree that the materials used for printing will continue to be refined. “Within the next two to three years we are going to have a very drastic improvement,” Levin said.

The idea is to eventually be able to use tissue models to practice procedures from start to finish and take them directly to the operating room.

As technology advances, the actual process of 3D printing will also continue to improve. Alongside this, Reisman emphasized the power of using virtual reality in medicine, another current focus of the CCVI.

Above all, the interactivity of the models is undoubtedly cultivating better doctor-patient relationships. The ability of the patient to hold a copy of their own heart allows them to better understand what the physician is planning to do, essential for creating trust.

“It shows the presence of what UW is trying to do in terms of being an excellent clinical environment,” Reisman said. “By the way, we’re starting to give patients their 3D prints after the procedure.”


Reach contributing writer Sarah Taylor at development@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @sarahtaylorelle

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