How 3D printed hearts are saving the lives of babies and children in the UK

Trials are taking place on patients all the time to improve treatments for all kinds of illnesses – and the introduction of new technologies can help medicine progress even faster.

One of the biggest advances in technology in recent years has been 3D printing, and it has helped in treating disorders in a number of exciting and unusual ways.

And for a family in Watford, the introduction of a tiny but incredible life-sized model heart did more than just help – it saved their baby’s life.

Mum Mariana Ciulean, 38, was 24 weeks pregnant with her son Lucas when she discovered he had a heart defect and would need surgery at six months old.

‘My husband and I were shocked and scared – so scared that he wouldn’t live,’ she told

‘We asked the doctors what his chances of survival would be, but they couldn’t tell us. At times each of us would cry without letting the other see in different parts of the room.’

She said she was monitored and scanned every five weeks right up until Lucas was born, and when her baby arrived he was ‘perfect’.

But then doctors found was another complication with his aorta, the major artery that leads out of the heart to the body.

Dad Tiberius, 39, said: ‘Things happened very quickly after that. We didn’t have time to really think about what was happening.

‘We knew he had a fight to survive now’

‘At three days old he had his first open heart surgery at Great Ormond Street Hospital – which took about six hours – to insert a stent.

‘We weren’t expecting him to have surgery so soon after being born – that was a shock. And we were warned there was a chance he might not make it through that surgery.

‘But we were just happy in the moment that he was alive. It was really mixed emotions because Lucas was alive, but we knew he had a fight to survive now.’

After two months in intensive care after his operation, their son was allowed home. Then at 10 months old, he went back into hospital for his second open heart surgery to correct the original defect.

Before the surgery researcher Dr Claudio Capelli, who is funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), printed a tiny 3D model heart so the surgeon could study it properly and know exactly what to expect.

It also helped doctors explain to and show the family what was going to happen: the surgery would connect the aorta to the left ventricle and to close a hole between both ventricles.

‘No two hearts are the same’

After just four hours in surgery – when it was expected to take six or seven – Lucas came out of theatre and his operation was a success.

Dr Capelli, who is a biomedical engineer, told ‘My job is helping translate engineering to clinics. I work directly in hospitals with doctors to help find technological solutions.

He said: ‘We use images from the scan of the patient and translate them into 3D objects. These can then be printed into a 3D model.’

Like fingerprints, no two hearts are the same – so the printed hearts can really help personalise treatment for each patient.

‘If a patient has a particularly complex or unique problem or has specific characteristics, we can really spend time working out the best approach to surgery,’ Dr Capelli explained.

He added another huge bonus of the 3D hearts is that they help in ‘communicating with families’.

‘When children are older, you can sit down and explain to them so they can understand what happened,’ he said. ‘The impact of that can be really powerful.’

Dr Capelli thinks experts have a ‘clear idea’ of where similar technology can take heart research in the next five or so years.

‘We can make 3D printed hearts because the technology is becoming more affordable now, and we are seeing the same happen with augmented reality,’ he said.

‘And as well as hearts, we may soon be able to print other equipment personalised to the patient for operations, such as stents. It is because of the BHF we are able to fund projects like this.’

Mum Mariana added: ‘We had no idea before we had Lucas that this technology even existed.

‘Looking back, we are convinced that thanks to BHF funding of projects like 3D printing our son is alive today. We just think it helped save our son’s life.

‘Don’t get me wrong, it was the surgeon who performed a miracle on our little boy, but he had great help because he was able to see exactly how his heart looked before he operated. We are so grateful.’

Now aged three and a half, Lucas’ parents have been told to treat him like ‘any other child’.

‘We had the last appointment with the consultant about a year and a half ago and don’t have to have another one until 2021,’ Mariana said.

‘He is full of energy now and a smart little boy – our little fighter. And we hope Lucas’s story may give hope to other families going through it now and in future.’

How is helping Beat Heartbreak Forever

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has teamed up with to help raise awareness and funds – because hearts need help now more than ever.

Since the BHF was established in 1961, it has funded pioneering research leading to ground-breaking and lifesaving treatments like statins and heart transplants.

Coronavirus has cut the BHF’s ability to fund new research in half from £100 million to £50 million, but heart and circulatory diseases are still the world’s biggest killers. If progress slows, even more lives will be at risk. As the charity faces the biggest crisis in its history while a second national lockdown approaches, it urgently needs support.

Some important facts:

  • There are around 7.4 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases in this country, including 900,000 with heart failure
  • Heart and circulatory diseases cause more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK. That’s nearly 170,000 deaths each year – an average of 460 deaths each day
  • Someone dies every eight minutes in the UK from coronary heart disease, the most common cause of heart attack and the single biggest killer worldwide
  • Before the BHF existed, most babies born with a heart defect did not survive to their first birthday. Today around 8 out of 10 survive to adulthood

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, chief executive at the British Heart Foundation said: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for so many people, especially those with heart and circulatory diseases. But we face an unprecedented funding crisis that threatens to arrest real progress.

‘The shockwaves from such a drop in funding will be profound, stalling discoveries that could save and improve lives. We are urging the Government to establish a Life Sciences-Charity Partnership to give vital support to charity research over the next three to five years and protect the future of UK science.

‘Charities have driven breakthroughs which have turned the tide on some of our biggest killers including heart disease and cancer. But without Government commitment to funding, charities will be forced to make devastating cuts to their research which will be hugely damaging for patients and UK science.’

You find out more and donate to help Beat Heartbreak Forever here.

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