3D Printer Produces Custom-Made Pacemaker

Scientists have designed an artificial heart membrane that may one day revolutionize pacemakers.

Using a 3D printer, high-resolution images and computer modeling, researchers at the University of Illinois and Washington University created a 3D replica of a rabbit's heart then used it as a template to produce a thin, flexible sheath of silicon that fit snugly around the heart. Next they fitted the custom-made pouch with a web of sensors and electrodes that monitored the heart and kept it beating in a steady rhythm.

Lead researcher John Rogers, a materials scientist at the University of Illinois, said the device acts like an artificial pericardium, the thin, outer sac that wraps around the heart like a tailored garment.

"The goal was to create a membrane that fit tightly but not so tightly that it interfered with the normal beating of the heart," he said.

The new device fits snugly around the heart like a tailored garment. Credit: University of Illinois and Washington University

Today's pacemakers are essentially one-size-fits-all gadgets but as Rogers explained, the new 3D modeling approach may allow scientists to create a pacemaker mold for each individual heart. Sensors could be placed in specific locations on the device to prevent irregular heartbeats known as arrhythmias, he said. The result would be a personalized pace-making device designed to help correct each heart's particular problems.

While the long-term application is probably more than a decade away with many regulatory hurdles to clear, Rogers said he hoped the technology could be used in heart surgery in the next three to five years.

"In a surgical setting that lasts for a relatively limited amount of time, it could be used in interventional procedures that treat certain classes of arrhythmias," he said. "We think that's feasible in the near-term future."

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