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3D printing personalises treatment for heart disease

25 February 2016

Doctors and engineers are using supercomputers to create 3D models from patients with heart disease, using photos from a camera thinner than a human hair.

Associate Professor Peter Barlis examines a 3D printed heart artery (photo: University of Melbourne)

The images, gathered during a routine angiogram, are fed into a supercomputer. Within 24 hours, a model of a person's artery is 3D printed, giving cardiologists crucial information about the behaviour of blood flow and the precise structure of the artery from the inside. It also helps them make decisions about the best stent to insert.

The technique, developed by researchers at the University of Melbourne in collaboration with Imperial College London and Harvard University, can also detect 'hot spots' for plaque, the waxy substance that builds up in arteries and causes heart disease. Some of these plaques have been difficult to find using traditional techniques.

"Using our ultra-sensitive heart scans combined with models derived using supercomputers, we are now able to print out segments of the patient's arteries and hope to tailor devices to fit them perfectly," says cardiologist and University of Melbourne associate professor Peter Barlis.

"No two arteries are shaped the same. We're all different, with arteries that have different branches and sizes, tapering from larger to smaller. And much like debris accumulates along a riverbank, plaque can cling to certain areas of a person's artery. So this technology really gives us a clearer picture of those areas.

"We ideally want to use models to predict the best type of stent for a patient. Once this process is streamlined, we can have a patient on the table and an artery 3D printed and modeled to guide the procedure."

Identifying which plaques go on to cause a heart attack remains the 'holy grail' of cardiology.

"Using a super-high resolution camera, known as optical coherence tomography (OCT), to scan the insides of the heart arteries has made it easier to image cholesterol plaques, but it still isn't clear which of these plaques will go on to cause heart attacks.

"If we can identify these high-risk plaques more accurately and much earlier, we may be able to prevent heart attacks before they occur."

"Our work involves using supercomputers to simulate blood flow in the arteries. The goal is to use blood flow patterns and disturbances to potentially predict the future development of high-risk plaques," says University of Melbourne researcher Dr Vikas Thondapu.

Associate Professor Barlis and his team now have two ARC grants to work with the University's Engineering School, to find a bio-compatible polymer to 3D print heart stents to precisely match a person's physical make-up, reducing the risk of stent collapse or complications.

They are also interested in new polymers that will allow the stent to slowly disintegrate over time and that can deliver drugs directly to the location of the plaque.

An article describing the work is published in The European Heart Journal.

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