Can 3D printers save lives?

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The Gadgeteer has reported in the past about how you can print a light saber, a storm trooper, musical instruments, and pen holders using 3D printers. When I think of 3D printing, these are the types of things that come to mind, but I was blown away when I read about how a 3D printed model of a little four-year-old girl’s heart saved her life (okay, maybe some of you have already read stories like this, but this was the first for me). 

Adaenelie Gonzalez was born with a heart defect called Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Connection (TAPVC). In a normal heart, the right side of the heart pumps oxygen poor blood to the lungs via the pulmonary artery. After picking up oxygen, the blood returns to the left side of the heart via the pulmonary veins to be pumped to the rest of the body. This congenital heart defect is a condition where the pulmonary veins do not connect to the left atrium of the heart, but instead, connect to the right side of the heart thus mixing oxygen rich and oxygen poor blood. How then does a baby survive this? This condition is often accompanied with a hole in the heart between the right and left atria (atrial septal defect) which allows the mixture of oxygen rich and poor blood in the right atrium to travel to the left side of the heart where the mix of blood is then pumped throughout the body. Adaenelie had had two operations on her heart as a newborn and needed another soon as the surgeons felt her life expectancy was down to weeks or days. She was struggling with breathing, weight loss, and extreme fatigue.

Initially, hope for the surgery was waning because the doctors were unsure about how to correct her defect until they studied a detailed 3D printed model of Adaenelie’s heart. “To make an accurate heart model, a team [at Miami Children’s Hospital] rendered CT scan data and then biomedical engineers transmitted the resulting files to AdvancedRP in Atlanta for printing. In the next 24 hours, the model was complete” (according to With the detailed 3D printing of Adaenelie’s heart, Dr. Redmond Burke, chief of cardiovascular surgery at Miami Children’s Hospital, was able to study her heart and determine where to place the donor heart tissue to perform the corrective surgery. He was also able to carefully plan each step of the operation that had never been performed before.


Now that the surgery is complete, Adaenelie is doing well during her recovery and the doctors expect her to live many years. So 3D printers can save lives! I’ve also learned that many surgeons and medical students are using this technology to improve learning and to advance medical science. It is truly exciting to see 3D printing technology bloom and forge new frontiers!

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