Practice, it is said makes perfect, but in the area of heart surgery for children, for obvious reasons, it can be difficult to practice, and there is a lot more at stake. Surgeons at Sick Kids hospital in Toronto now have a unique program to boost confidence in operation procedures with surgery practice procedure that has been implemented as part of the training.
The program developed by cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Glen Van Arsdell, and radiologist, Dr. Shi-Joon Yoo, teaches new surgeons how to repair infant hearts with congenital defects, by working on 3D-printed replicas. The training at Sick Kids is seen as a major step forward, with no real heart being needed for practice, and all of the risk is eliminated. Even if something goes wrong during the surgery practice, it is not really a costly mistake, but actually a valuable learning experience.
The infant heart surgery practice program overcomes several deficiencies that includes a lack of hearts on which to practice. Dr. Van Arsdell says that usually hearts come from dead animals or donors, and no training is available to doctors who are fresh out of medical school. Because of these shortcomings, it may take surgeons up to 15 years before becoming involved with actual infant cardiac surgery.
The heart surgery practice program involves scanning the hearts of real infant patients with congenital defects, and, replicas are then built with 3D printers. The ingredients used can produce objects that can be sewn, cut and manipulated as is they were real. The doctors say that the hearts may be a bit more difficult to work with than human tissue, but that actually offers an advantage, where the actual surgery may be much easier.
The problem of a lack of hearts is also solved, as multiple replicas can be printed at little costs. The doctors can practice for as long as needed, and can go into surgery with a lot more confidence of a positive outcome, with the knowledge that the procedures were already performed several times before. Van Arsdell has higher hopes for the technology. At present, many of the patients, especially infants with congenital heart defects will need to return to hospitals for treatments, as they grow older. When complications arise, such irregular heart rhythm problems, leaking valves, or heart failure, the fixes are often complex and resource intensive. It is not uncommon for heart surgeries to last for almost the whole day. With more complex procedures, the technology can be used to eliminate discovery, as specific parts can be printed, and procedures rehearsed, and a plan developed, before the surgery is begun.
Dr Yoo expects that the properties of composites used to print the models will also improve, and as the 3D printing technology advances, with advancements in the medical field, it may be possible to print cells around a scaffolding, which eventually disintegrates to leave a working human heart. Researchers are already are working on generating 3D printed body parts, and the heart is one of the areas open to exploration.