Republish this article
28th September 2016

3D printed heart saved little Mia’s life

Replica heart sparked surgical breakthrough – could doctors print living organs next?

Her parents hoped she had asthma. Little Mia was often out of breath and picked up respiratory infections often than other children – coughs, colds and even pneumonia.

But while Mia’s asthma inhaler would help her to catch her breath, doctors began to worry that something more serious could be afoot. After being hospitalised ten times, it was discovered that Mia had a heart problem. After scanning the heart, doctors realised that Mia had a problem with her aorta – the large blood vessels that pumps blood from the heart. Due to a malformation, the aorta was putting pressure on her windpipe, making it hard for her to breathe and swallow.

Doctors told Mia’s parents that complex surgery would be required. She was just four years old.“We were freaking out; to go from thinking she had asthma to being told she needed to have open heart surgery,” said Mia’s mother, Katherine.

3D model

For the surgeons, the procedure was exceptionally complicated and delicate. To plan the surgery, they turned to the latest high-tech tool available – 3D printing. While the printer in your home or office spits ink onto a flat (2D) page, 3D printing involves adding layers of liquid plastic or rubber on top of one another to give a three-dimensional shape. When the liquid hardens, it leaves a precise scale model of the object.

In this case, the ‘object’ was Mia’s heart and the printer worked from a computer model developed using MRI and CT scans. But unlike a 2D scan, the 3D model allowed doctors to explore the heart in the round. Dr Redmond Burke, the doctor responsible for planning the surgery, carried the model with him for weeks, consulting colleagues and looking at the organ from every angle.

Then, one day, Dr Burke had a Eureka! moment: instead of making an incision on the left side of the heart – as would be the norm for this kind of heart defect – he decided to enter Mia’s heart from the right.


“Without the model, I would have been less certain about (operating on Mia) and that would have led me naturally to make a larger incision that could possibly cause more pain and a longer recovery time,” Burke said.

He says the plan developed using the customised model heart saved his surgical team about two hours in the operating theatre and improved the result for Mia. It also helped the patient’s parents understand what the surgery would involve – and gave them confidence that their daughter’s doctors had a full understanding of what would await them when they began open heart surgery.

Within months, Mia was at a dance recital like any other four-year-old. Apart from a surgical scar, her operation was fading fast into history and she was living a normal life.

What’s next?

The 3D models are already being used to plan operations and in medical education. But researchers are exploring ways of moving beyond printing with plastics – the future is bio-printing which uses living human cells. Scientists can print a human heart in the lab and while it may be a while before a heart is implanted in a human, work on 3D-printed blood vessels and heart valves is advancing. The ultimate goal would be to be able to print organs using stem cells from our own bodies. This would put an end to organ donation waiting lists and radically reduce the risk of rejection by transplant recipients.

As we celebrate World Heart Day on 29 September, spare a thought for the doctors and scientists pushing the boundaries of cardiac research. And, in the meantime, take care of your heart with a good diet and exercise.