‘Living Heart Project’ brings a beat to 3-D

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The heart attack started abruptly, a quiver in the left ventricle that starved a section of muscle of vital oxygen. Paralyzed and damaged tissue threw off the heart’s natural pumping rhythm and stretched the valves and cords that keep blood flowing through its chambers. The organ sprang a leak.

The fix was simple: a ring-shaped band that was clipped into an opening between the chambers, with a small hook supporting the stretched cords, helping the mechanism along and reversing the damage that the attack had caused.

The virtual patient, a 39-year-old male, lived. Both he and this heart attack were a simulation, visualized in exacting detail by a team of researchers at Waltham-based Dassault Systèmes who are trying to recreate a biologically accurate model of the heart. Their goal is to enable surgeons and device makers to take a virtual tour through the human body as they experiment and design fixes for it.

For 34 years, Dassault has developed 3-D software for engineers who build cars, airplane parts, and buildings, helping them design longer-lasting, better-performing products. So moving into organs was a logical next step — if we can test devices in computers first, why not have be that be part of the standard of health care?

“We recognized that there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on understanding the cardiovascular system,” said Steve Levine, Dassault’s chief strategy officer. “No one had put the pieces together.”

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In August 2013, the company put out a call to researchers to send in their data about how the heart looks and works in real people, with the goal of piecing together the puzzle in 3-D. The result, announced a year ago, is the Living Heart Project, a three-dimensional simulator that can enlarge the body’s most vital organ to the size of a room. The project pools research and modeling data from 45 labs and companies around the world to create the most life-like map of the organ yet.

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Visitors at the company’s Waltham offices Tuesday were able to navigate through the organ. The virtual heart is simulated on screen using nine projectors.

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Inside a specially designed room, a person can put on a pair of 3-D glasses and take a virtual walking tour through a beating, sectioned heart or fly through the chambers tracking the path of blood.

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Using a joystick, one can also rotate the image. Markers on the glasses are read by infrared cameras that understand the person’s stance and position and adjust the image the visitor is seeing as they move their head or walk around the room.

The entire setup costs upwards of $1 million, but the team has also created a cheaper tablet-based model that can be viewed with 3-D glasses.
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Levine hopes surgeons and doctors one day will use the system to model unusual and rare congenital heart defects. His vision is informed by experience. His daughter, now 26, was born with a defect that resulted in the chambers of her heart being reversed, a condition that initially had her doctors stumped.

Of all the human body parts, the heart may be most deserving of such attention. Heart disease is the cause of one in four deaths in America each year. And unlike other tissue, the heart cannot repair itself once injured.

Dassault is now in the first year of a five-year partnership with the Food and Drug Administration to study how visualizations could become part of the standard approval process for device makers. The project’s initial goal is to research how to optimally position and lengthen the life of leads on pacemakers.

Stanford University mechanical engineer Ellen Kuhl was among the first to share research data with the Living Heart Project.

She said approving such devices as stents or pacemakers typically takes a decade or more. They must first be tested in animals, then in humans before they are deemed safe. “If you can shorten it with virtual design, I think it will be phenomenal,” Kuhl said.

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Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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