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The 3D Printed Heart Is Real—And It Could Soon Be Beating Within Your Chest

Not too long ago, 3D printers were little more than unique additions to an art or engineering classroom: a fun, relatively new invention that students could use to print figurines and miniature furniture pieces.

But these days, 3D printers have become decisively more useful.

Researchers at the ETH, a STEM focused university in Zurich, recently created a fully-functioning silicone human heart using a 3D printer.

The heart was developed by Nicholas Cohrs, a doctoral student from the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH.

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Although the heart only beats 3,000 times, lasting about a half an hour, before the material breaks down, Cohrs is not discouraged.

“This was simply a feasibility test,” said Cohrs. “Our goal was not to present a heart ready for implantation, but to think about a new direction for the development of artificial hearts."

As improvement on the 3D printed heart is made, ETH researchers hope it will become a viable replacement for mechanical heart pumps that have a high risk of complications. These pumps are temporarily used to support people with heart failure as they wait for a donor.

Anastasios Petrou, the ETH doctoral student who evaluated the performance of the heart, said that, despite its immediate shortcomings, the synthetic heart is revolutionary.

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Boasting that ETH’s silicone heart system is one of the best in the world, Petrou says he hopes to continue focusing his research on improving the heart.

Even if it is found that the silicone heart cannot serve as an adequate replacement for mechanical pumps, or actual hearts, the technology and research may help advance another study focusing on regenerating portions of damaged heart tissue.   

The heart is not the first human organ to be created using 3D printer, but it certainly is one of the most advanced.

3D printers have been used to create prosthetics for amputees, helping improve the lives of  wounded service members and even former child soldiers.

Prosthetics made using 3D printers tend to run cheaper than prosthetics made from traditional metal materials. They also can be made, or “printed” within a day, whereas traditional prosthetics can take weeks to manufacture. With cheaper costs and a quick turn-around, 3D printers make prosthetics more available to people who could not have otherwise afforded them.

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In 2015, a 10 year-old boy from Delaware even created his own prosthetic hand using a 3D printer from his local library.  

Although it’s definitely recommended to let medical professionals lead the way, , this boy's story is another example of how relatively easy and inexpensive it is to create artificial limbs using 3D printing technology.

Sometime soon, people around the world could be walking around with 3D printed hearts.