Hong Kong researchers pioneer use of 3D printing for faster, safer heart surgery

Chinese University and HKU introduce technology to create personalised models of complex heart structures out of silicone

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2016, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2016, 6:35pm

Personalised models of complex heart structures can now be created with the latest 3D printing technology jointly introduced by the Chinese University and the University of Hong Kong, allowing doctors to do a more precise planning before surgeries.

The actual structure of the heart is first captured via ultrasound imaging, followed by the creation of a silicone model using specially developed computer software.

It takes around two days to complete the whole process, from the ultrasound scanning to the creation of the product.

The technology has so far been applied during three operations involving left atrial appendage occlusion out of 49 of the same type performed between April last year and March this year.

The first patient who benefited from the new technology was a 78-year-old woman who had suffered several strokes. The surgery was a success even though it was complicated by the patient having two lobes in her left atrial appendage.

In the operation, doctors use a tube to place an occluder – a device that covers a hole in the heart to hinder the formation of blood clots –in the patient’s heart, thus reducing the risk of stroke.

Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin was the first in the city to apply the technique in heart operations.

“Personalised planning can be done before operation, and doctors would know which size of occluder to use with the model,” said Dr Alex Lee Pui-wai, assistant professor at the Chinese University’s division of cardiology.

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Previously, without a model to help gauge the size of the hole in the patient’s heart, deciding on the correct device to use was much more problematic.

“If the size didn’t match, we had to use a catheter to retrieve the occluder. The time and risk of the operation would be increased too,” said Dr Gary Cheung Shing-him, clinical assistant professor at the Chinese University’s division of cardiology.

He said doctors often had to prepare occluders of different sizes when performing operations.

Lee said that by looking at only ultrasound images in the past, doctors might not have been able to place the device at the most appropriate location in the heart, causing incomplete coverage. That was experienced by one-third of patients in past surgeries, according to foreign data.

The team hopes to introduce 3D printers in routine medical procedures in hospitals in the future and to provide a speedy process for operation planning.