The day is coming when “electronic health record” doesn’t mean just a digital transcript of doctors’ notes about exams and tests, but a three-dimensional digital model of your entire anatomy. The first version of such a human avatar-for-health now exists—the world’s first realistic 3D simulation of a whole human heart. It doesn’t just look like a heart. Its software is designed to make it function like one.
The outcome of the Living Heart Project—a stealth interdisciplinary collaboration among more than 50 medical researchers, practitioners, device manufacturers, and industry regulators—the model was introduced today by Dassault Systèmes. The 3D design software company calls it “the next frontier in diagnosing, treating, and preventing heart conditions through personalized, 3D virtual models.”
Dassault Systèmes’ realistic simulation applications are used across industries—for instance, to create computer models of airplanes, cars, and crash tests—and have increasingly been finding wider applications in consumer products. “That same technology you can use to crash a car, you can use to build an iPhone and see if it breaks,” explains Steve Levine, Dassault Systèmes’ senior director of portfolio management. Digital simulations save developers enormous time and expense when testing such products. They can watch the simulation crash, for example, not an actual prototype car.
Similarly, the 3D heart model, which will be available commercially for doctors later this year, captures the electrical and mechanical behavior of the heart. It can be personalized to mimic a specific patient’s heart, and could enable a cardiologist to simulate how a patient might respond to a wide range of interventions. For instance, Levine says, a surgeon might test the effectiveness of a pacemaker for a given patient’s heart before implanting it in the real one.
Levine, who is also executive leader of the Living Heart Project, says Dassault Systèmes chose the heart as its first simulated human organ “not least because cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death worldwide.” He adds that current methods for testing outcomes in the heart have a mediocre success rate. “If planes failed as often as medical devices fail, we’d have a big problem,” Levine says. “There’s no reason in principle why a device in the human body shouldn’t last 30 years.”
The goal of the Living Heart Project, which has been underway for a year and a half already, is to enable the creation of a customized 3D heart based on any patient’s CT or MRI scan, and then to use Dassault Systèmes animation technology to bring that 3D version to life. A physician can then design a treatment—whether surgery or a custom device— for the patient’s precise condition. Levine says a custom heart can be modeled in two hours, after which users of the technology can actually interact with a 3D hologram of the heart, removing and replacing valves and testing interactions, looking at clogged arteries and heart failure and testing fixes.
How does blood flow in and out of a computer animated heart? Levine explains, “We make computational shortcuts to model the fluid with pressure so the heart thinks blood is pumping.”
James Perry, Professor of Pediatrics at UC San Diego and Director of Electrophysiology and Adult CHD at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, notes that patients with congenital heart defects, who face a lifetime of cardiac procedures, stand to benefit greatly from the technology. Others for whom he says it could be a lifesaver include those who suffer heart failure, arrhythmias, and other structural abnormalities. Perry calls the 3D heart “a huge advancement that will expedite the translation of our basic scientific understanding of cardiac function into practical applications. ”
The heart model could also be a valuable educational and research tool and could lead to accelerated regulatory approval cycles, reduced personalized device development costs, early diagnoses, and improved treatment outcomes.
While Levine declined to discuss the project budget, he says the app, when commercialized, will be affordable for hospitals and device manufacturers. “Certainly compared to animal testing, the cost of this will be fractions of that,” he says. The day is still a ways off when an average doctor might build an avatar-like model of a specific patient’s heart as an ongoing diagnostic and health-maintenance tool. Levine doesn’t know what that will cost, but he is sure Dassault’s Systèmes will make it feasible.
“An electronic record of paper is not useful at all in diagnosis,” Levine says. “Your doctor can’t do anything with that data but look it up. If you had a 3D avatar, every time you had a scan or a test, it would make that model more accurate. Part of the project is about what we think the future impact can be. We’re taking a leap in the cardiovascular space, but there’s no reason why we can’t do the same with the brain or other physical parts of the body.”