Doctors are using extraordinary 3D-printed replicas of patients’ hearts to improve surgery and predict those at risk of life-threatening changes in their heartbeat.

The initiative at the Royal Brompton hospital uses images from a CMR (cardiovascular magnetic resonance) scan to create an exact model of the heart and its muscles, valves and chambers.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, a honorary consultant cardiologist, said the technology was useful in invasive heart procedures and in and treating heart rhythm disturbances in patients born with congenital heart disease.

She said: “Firstly, surgeons and other clinical team members are able to better grasp how a patient’s heart is affected by their condition. This leads to better care and allows us to diagnose and repair conditions with less need for invasive diagnostic procedures”.

“Secondly, a 3D model can 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.”

The hospital, in Chelsea, is the first in the world to work out how to use the hundreds of images gathered by a CMR scan, which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to take detailed pictures, to replicate signs of scarring on the heart.

Heart scarring is often caused by heart disease or surgery, and can cause arrhythmia, an occasionally life-threatening condition where the heart beats too fast, slow or irregularly.

This enables doctors to better predict which patients may need to be fitted with a precautionary pacemaker to “kickstart” their heart back into a regular beat.

A 3D model of the heart
A 3D model of the heart

One patient, Jonathan Havre, 35, from Swanley, Kent,, had his heart modelled to help doctors assess the risk of arrhythmia from his post-operative heart scars. He has a common congenital heart condition, repaired Tetralogy of Fallot, which is characterised by four structural defects in the heart.

He said: “I found the model of the heart gave me a real understanding of what was happening. It really put me at ease knowing exactly what my heart looks like”.

“It is sometimes hard to picture what I’m being told. With the 3D model I could hold my own heart, an experience I never thought I’d have.”

The hospital’s charity is raising money to pay for a 3D printer to enable more heart replicas to be created. The replicas are created for the Brompton by the Belgian biomedical engineering firm Materialise.

Dr Babu-Narayan said: “Across the world techniques are continually evolving, we are barely scratching the surface of the potential clinical uses for 3D imaging and printing.”