The patient, who has a genetic abnormality resulting in heart defects that obstructed his pulmonary artery needed a stent to keep the right artery open, according to the hospital. However, standard stents don’t come in smaller sizes.

“There are no stents designed for little kids. You need to modify them to fit their anatomy,” says pediatric interventional cardiologist Frank Ing, M.D., chief of the division of cardiology and co-director of the Heart Institute at Children’s L.A.  

Using CT scans of the patient’s heart, cardiologists generated a 3-D printed model of the obstructed region. Dr. Ing was then able to fashion a smaller stent to precisely fit into the narrowed artery in the model. “With 3-D we can make the measurements, cut it and try it out [on the model]. Without 3-D it would have taken more time to evaluate the anatomy, make measurements and modify the specifications. This way we could prove to ourselves that the stent was the right size and positioned how we wanted it,” Ing says. Using the 3-D model was also faster and smoother.

“You wouldn’t have NASA send spaceships to the moon without simulation,” Ing says.

Ing anticipates that 3-D printing will be used more routinely, so long as the hospital, a tertiary and quaternary facility, can afford it. “Ideally it would be nice to use when needed. Nothing beats having [a model] in your hand,” says Ing.

However, 3-D modeling is not yet covered by insurance according to Ing, and there is a cost to print the model out. CHLA does have a small grant for 3-D printing and will continue to pursue grants and other philanthropy to pay for such modeling. In this instance, the 3-D modeling company agreed to provide the modeling for free.

“This is a novel way to understand anatomy but also because it’s sort of rare it’s a challenge to find support to make these things possible,” says Ing. Only six to eight babies out of 1,000 live births are affected.

“For those kids, it’s devastating. You want to help the underdog,” Ing says.