At the moment, artificial heart valves are above all made of either hard polymers or animal tissue from cows or pigs combined with metal frames. To prevent the body rejecting these implants, patients have to take life-long immunosuppressants or anticoagulants, which have significant undesirable side effects. It also takes several working days to make an artificial heart valve by hand and they only last up to 15 years. The replacement valves currently used are circular, so do not exactly match the shape of the aorta.
Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) and the South African company Strait Access Technologies (SAT) now hope to revolutionize heart valves. They have developed technology to produce heart valves out of silicone with a 3D printer. The individual shape and size of the leaky heart valve can be determined using computer tomography or magnetic resonance imaging. These images can then be used to create a digital model and a computer simulation. This method not only allows for heart valves to be custom-made, but is also significantly quicker. In future, the ETH reports that a battery of printers could potentially produce dozens or even hundreds of valves every day. These valves also have a longer service life: the aim is to develop heart valves that could even grow along with the patient, so they can be implanted in young people as well, explains Manuel Schaffner, one of the study’s lead authors.
It will still take at least ten years before the new artificial heart valves come into clinical use, as they first have to go through exhaustive clinical trials. Either an industrial partner or a spin-off is needed to make the heart valve commercially available on the market. “As a research group, we are unfortunately unable to provide a seamless offering from the first experiment to the first application in the human body,” says Schaffner.