Mia Gonzalez heart Mia Gonzalez heart Mia Gonzalez holding a copy of the 3D printed heart that helped save her life.

How a 3D-printed heart helped save a little girl's life

Faced with a complex surgery to correct a rare heart condition, these doctors turned to a new high-tech tool to help guide the way.

Think of 3D printing, and words like revolutionary, disruptive and game-changing might come to mind. For one little girl, however, 3D printing is nothing short of life-saving.

Five-year-old Mia Gonzalez was born with a rare heart malformation called double aortic arch. The condition occurs when the aorta, the large artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body, is made up of two vessels instead of one. As a result, these vessels encircle and press down on the esophagus, restricting airflow. The only option to correct the the life-threatening condition is with surgery.

As you might imagine, heart surgery on children is particularly complex owing to the small size of the organ and its corresponding vessels. While 2D imaging has been available for some time to allow doctors to move around a virtual heart prior to surgery, 3D printing has taken science one step further. In Mia's case, surgeons at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, Florida, were able to print an exact replica of her heart down to the smallest detail. The team used technology from Stratasys, a firm that produces cutting-edge 3D printers from its manufacturing headquarters in Israel.

“Once patient scan data from MR or CT imaging is fed into the Stratasys 3D Printer, doctors can create a model with all its intricacies, specific features and fine detail," said Scott Rader, GM of Medical Solutions at Stratasys. He added that physical replicas significantly "enhance surgical preparedness, reduces complications and decreases operating time."

Doctors involved with Mia's case said 3D printing provided them an invaluable advantage: the ability to handle the replica of her heart and at a moment's notice ponder a surgical solution.

"I literally carried it around in my gym bag for a couple weeks," Dr. Redmond Burke, director of Pediatric Cardiovascular at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, said in a video. "So I would reach in, take it out and look at it until it finally dawned on me that there was a relationship that we could exploit. Why experiment, why go into the operating model and hope, when we've got a model, and we can actually test the device in the model, and know with certainty that this is going to work?"

3D printed heartThe level of detail provided by 3D printing has allowed doctors to create accurate models of a patient's organs. (Photo: Stratasys)

Burke further praised the accuracy of Stratasys' printers, saying that images of Mia's heart taken during the operation matched perfectly with the physical replica they had been studying for weeks.

Two months after the successful surgery, Mia is now enjoying an active life filled with dancing, baseball and everything else that comes with being a typical 5-year-old.

“Going from 4 1/2 years of not knowing to being back to normal in less than two months – that’s been a great experience for us,” said Mia’s mother, Katherine Gonzalez. "So now, it's just going back to normal life and not being worried."

Stratasys heartPatient scan data from MR or CT imaging is fed into the Stratasys 3D printer, which then creates an exact physical replica. (Photo: Stratasys)

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