Home Frontiers 3D Printed Human Heart Breakthrough from Switzerland

3D Printed Human Heart Breakthrough from Switzerland

Team of medical doctors and engineers invent an artificially created, 3D printed soft heart that could be used in a real human. This cuts down the cost of surgery, the need for organ donors, the prevalence of organ black markets, and carries with it other far reaching implications.


3D Printed Human Heart Breakthrough from Zurich

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A team of Swiss doctors, and engineers have created a life-like, soft artificial heart using 3D printing. The artificial heart is about the same size as a real heart, weighs 309 grams, and achieves life-like blood circulation. This breakthrough heart research paves the way to the creation of safe, completely artificial hearts for patients who have in the past needed replacement hearts from organ donors.

Artificial hearts are not a new. There are various forms of synthetic heart parts that exist today. However, they are relatively crude and risky. They also have higher risk than conventional strategies. The hard materials in common artificial hearts could often lead to clots. Some of these clots are dangerous, and often fatal.

To address these challenges, the Swiss team based in Zurich collaborated to create a new type of artificial heart. This heart could one day be planted inside patients. This groundbreaking work required the expertise of one of the world’s top cardiothoracic and vascular surgery, Professor Volkmar Falk. The project also needed experts in bioengineering, 3D printing and mechanical engineering.     

The Limitations Of Presently-used Hard Hearts  

A heart transplant may become necessary when one’s heart undergoes severe damage due to illness or other deformities. In some cases, existing conditions such as weaknesses in the heart are discovered. When the severity of these adverse conditions is life-threatening, a heart transplant may be the only way to prolong life.

The actual procedure of heart transplant occurs while a patient is under general anesthesia, and is one of the most complex surgical procedures. Artificial hearts are an important part of the process. They allow a patient’s blood to circulate while doctors complete their work. Once the transplant is complete, doctors reactivate the patient’s circulation with the new heart.

Current artificial hearts use hard materials such as plastic, titanium or steel, which are the cause of blood clotting. Blood clots, on the other hand, can cause a wide range of complications for patients. These include swelling, soreness, as well as disruption of blood flow to parts of the body. In more serious cases, blood clots can lead to severe complication such as kidney failure or pulmonary embolisms, which are cloggings in pulmonary arteries in the lungs.

By using a softer material such as silicon elastomers, Professor Falk and his team hoped to create a landmark concept for a soft total heart. Such a solution, if successful, would obviate the need for blood anticoagulants to combat the formation of blood clots in the patient’s system.    

The Dream Team And The Making Of The Soft Heart

3d printed artificial heart
Soft artificial heart that was printed using a 3D printer

Professor Volkmar Falk, the main proponent of the artificial heart idea, is one of the leading world experts on heart surgery. He serves as the Medical Director and Director of the Department of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery at the German Heart Institute in Berlin.

For the artificial heart medical research project, he had the idea to create a first in the world, combining a soft material with the latest fabrication and 3D printing techniques. The outcome of such a project would help evaluate the potential for a soft total artificial heart (sTAH). If successful, the concept would then be developed further in the research to the point of one day developing a soft artificial heart capable of implanting in patients. This work would enable survivors of damaged heart conditions to one day be able to live off a totally artificial heart implant.

In order to tap the state of the art in 3D printing for medical applications, Professor Falk turned to Wendelin Stark, himself Professor and the chair of Functional Materials Engineering at the ETH Zurich.

An Institution With A Scientific Past

ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich) is a world-famous engineering and technology university in Zurich, Switzerland. It has produced some of the most illustrious figures in the world of science, including Albert Einstein. They have also collectively been responsible for at least 21 Nobel Prizes. Professor Stark has conducted research on the cutting edge of materials science and medical applications, including optimizing nano-particles for use to purify water as well as industrial safety.

The team, however, needed yet one more expert, this time an expert of mechanical engineering, Professor Mirko Meboldt, also of ETH in Zurich. This cross-skilled team collaborated to create a completely soft, pneumatically driven artificial heart using silicon elastomers.

In evaluation, the soft total artificial heart developed by the team was able to achieve human-like circulation lasting for up to 30 or 45 minutes.

The soft total artificial heart (sTAH) generated signals of blood flow and pressures that mimic those of a real heart. There results mark huge strides of progress. These implants can be used by patients. However, there are a lot of obstacles in the way to achieveing that. Successful implants must function well under years of isolation. This is an ongoing challenge in the synthetic organ research.

Other Breakthroughs In Medical Technology And 3D Printing In Medicine  

The accomplishments of Dr. Falk and his team serve to illustrate the growing trend of synthetic organ research. Recently scientists at Cornell have used 3D printing to create an artificial ear that supposedly has a high performance success rate.

In 2016, 3D printed kidney replacement tissue became a reality. This was at the Jennifer Lewis Lab at Harvard University. This raised the prospect of one day being able to make complete organ replacements for kidneys in the lab.

This research has far reaching implications, and has great potential. The synthetic organ being printed does not have to be the heart – it could be any organ with similar structure. Researchers around the world scurry to find a cost effective solution to this problem.

The Time Of Artificial Organs Is Here

The accomplishments of Professors Falk, Stark and Meboldt signal a landmark moment in the field of artificial human hearts. They had acquired blood circulation data from the soft artificial heart. The data proved that an approach based on soft materials can work.

With more research, the scientists could achieve a full heart replacement surgery using 3D printed parts. Within the next five years, this technology could hit the market and reach  potential customers.