Doctors at Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC, are creating new hearts to help cardiac surgeons. Not actual hearts, but three-dimensional synthetic models using a 3D printer. The only one of its kind at a Washington area hospital, the printer uses scans from individual patients to replicate their organs, including their intricacies and deformities. The printer then synthesizes images from CT scans or ultrasounds, and stacks plastic layers to replicate them exactly.

Pediatric cardiologist Laura Olivieri says that in one recent case, she used a 3D printer-produced model that she could take apart before the patient’s surgery. “The cardiac anatomy of this patient is very rare,” she said. “And it’s not like there’s an FDA-designed device that will solve it.” The model allowed her to “look at the anatomy in 3D and do some practice runs where the patient isn't involved.”

The models can be creating using a mix of hard and soft plastics so the replica feels like an actual heart.

Children's National Medical Center has been using its printer for some interesting projects and is partnering with the University of Maryland to print medical devices that reabsorb in the body over time rather than requiring surgical removal.