There has to be a better way. Loaded with frustration and determination, that realization has inspired countless technological advances from Bronze Age tools to cell phones. At UW Medicine, the desire for a better way has inspired the use of 3D hearts — hearts that are exact replicas of those found beating in patients’ chests.

Stephen Seslar, M.D., Ph.D., and Kristen Patton, M.D., both associate professors of medicine in the Division of Cardiology, are electrophysiologists or EPs, specialists in diagnosing and treating electrical problems in the heart.

“EPs must complete two years of advanced fellowship training following their cardiology fellowship,” Patton says. In that time, fellows learn to guide catheters through the chambers of the heart, using 3D fluoroscopy imaging and mapping software. But you can’t cover every situation in training. “It took me another five years as an attending to be truly comfortable doing complex procedures,” Seslar adds. “And you still can’t practice for one-of-kind cases in which patients have unusual abnormalities.”

There must be a better way to be prepared for heart procedures, they thought. And after they crossed paths with Tom Burke, a local engineer who could print 3D organs, they found their answer. Now in the prototype stage, their HeartMAP™ Simulator allows EPs to practice guiding catheter probes through a heart model made of a hydrogel. Burke and his team tested five materials before finding one that wouldn’t tear and that felt just like probing a real heart. The material is a proprietary secret.

Seslar used the device to practice on a replicated heart, that of a young woman with a congenital abnormality. Then he performed the procedure. “The real procedure had a good outcome, in part because we understood the anatomy,” Seslar says. “I felt like I had been there before.”

UW Medicine’s Institute for Simulation and Interprofessional Studies, directed by Brian Ross, Ph.D., M.D. ’83, Res. ’87, UW professor in anesthesiology, provided guidance for building the simulator and preparing training curricula, and he created an informational video. The team also will work with the UW Center for Commercialization on licensing the equipment and training programs.

“Our next step is to conduct a validation study to compare different procedural training methods and then secure a grant to conduct a multi-center trial,” Patton says. “We see huge opportunities for improving EP training. It’s great timing because medicine is looking for better ways to assess risks and physician competency to improve patient safety and quality of care.”

At left: the model heart chamber is stored in a solution that keeps it pliant. At right: a catheter is threaded through the chamber as part of a practice simulation. Photos: Delia Ward