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Take A 3-D Tour Of A Big, Beating Human Heart

Now doctors and heart device companies can get an up-close and personal view of our vital organs, without cutting anyone open.

The human heart courses with electric energy. It pumps blood throughout the body. It’s filled with ventricles, vessels and valves. It’s a thing of complexity and wonder, and now doctors and surgeons can understand the organ as never before: through a lifelike 3-D simulation known as the Living Heart.

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Developed by Dassault Systemes, a French conglomerate, the computer-generated rendering shows the heart from every angle. It allows viewers to “walk through” the organ and to understand the impact of certain treatments. For example, device manufacturers can see what type of stents might be most effective in improving blood flow, and which ones might cause tissue bleeding or tearing.

“The device companies now have the ability to do what other manufacturers do, and that is to test their products in a [realistic] environment, but in a safe and efficient way,” says Steve Levine, director of strategy for SIMULIA, a division of the company.

Dassault has long made 3-D computer models for automative and aerospace industries (among others). So, turning to the heart is a logical, though complex, progression. The Living Heart is based on MRI scans of a healthy 39-year-old. Dassault then adds in electrical, circulatory, and tissue-level detail.

Viewers control the heart image using a joystick and special 3-D glasses linked to infrared cameras that gauge a person’s position relative to the screen. The effect is like journeying through a fantasy gaming world, except the walls are suffused with blood.

Levine says the next step is to create hearts affected by types of disease, and, even more usefully, personalized hearts. In future versions, doctors will be able to translate your MRI scan into a 3-D image, and then walk you through what’s wrong, and what might fix it.

“On the computer, we’ll be able to test the different sizes and types of valves the doctors might want to replace. The computer will work out which one will produce the optimal flow with the minimum stress on the heart,” Levine says. “Instead of a couple of [heart-related] numbers in your digital health record, you’ll have a three-dimensional model you can watch as it evolves over time.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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