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3-D Heart Model Library Grows At Phoenix Children's Hospital

Justin Ryan and Dr. Stephen Pophal stand outside the Cardiac 3-D Print Lab holding heart models for the Cardiac Library at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
(Photo by Rachel Lund - KJZZ)
Justin Ryan and Dr. Stephen Pophal stand outside the Cardiac 3-D Print Lab holding heart models for the Cardiac Library at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Arizona State University biomedical engineers are teaming up with Phoenix Children’s Hospital to become pioneers in the field of three-dimensional heart models. A recent grant will allow this one-of-a-kind 3-D Cardiac Print Lab to expand, changing the lives of patients and surgeons. 

The 3-D print lab is tucked next to the bathroom on the second floor of Phoenix Children’s Hospital behind a door that could be mistaken for a closet. The small room is filled with brightly colored heart models and a large white machine. 

Justin Ryan is designs and prints many of the 3-D heart models. He is currently getting his doctorate in biomedical engineering at Arizona State University. He got his bachelor's degree in fine art. 

“This all starts with CT scans, basically a bunch of slices of x-rays through the body. We take all the slices and we create a 3-D model, very similar to what you have seen at Pixar or a video game. It’s all the same technologies. I use the same technologies that are used to make 3-D animations that I used to make these heart models," said Ryan. 

Ryan will be creating more hearts and they will become part of the growing Cardiac Library. They currently have about 150 hearts but hope to have up to 1,000 different and distinct heart models in the next couple of years. 

David Frake, associate professor of engineering at ASU, said the library will change how surgeons learn. 

“By creating a standard library of, say, the 50 most common congenital defects, we’ll be able to take this set of models and use it for training medical students so they can understand how these anatomies exist in the real three-dimensional world,” said Frake. 

Pediatric Cardiologist and Division Chief at Phoenix Children's Hospital Dr. Stephen Pophal said he hopes that increased education will decrease heart-related deaths. 

“That is our goal, if we can make congenital heart disease simpler for families, students, nurses, doctors but more importantly the people who are doing the intervention, we expect the results to be better," said Pophal. 

He also believes that working with these heart models has made him a better doctor. 

“The way I learned heart abnormalities was really with some very fuzzy grey and white shadows some squiggly lines on paper called EKG," he said. "And so imagine how that has changed to something like this, and I think it is going to make a huge difference in the care of these patients.”

Everyone who is part of this project believes this technology will make great changes in cardiac care. 

Ryan said he is excited to be a part of history and changing the way patients are cared for. 

“It’s quite incredible, it’s not science fiction either, we often talk about these big ideals of science and technology merging to help medicine in all these incredible ways, right? And even 3-D printing everyone thinks it’s so far in the future, but it’s now,” said Ryan.

The technology is spreading. The team is partnering with children’s hospitals in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in an attempt to quantify the effect of using 3-D heart models. They believe using these heart models will speed recovery time, shorten time on the table, and eliminate complications. The data on these studies should be available in the next few years.

Rachel Lund is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, a life-long NPR junkie, aunt extraordinaire, puppy mother and college football enthusiast.