Engineering for Improved Quality of Life

Alejandro Roldan-Alzate, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and radiology, is working to improve the quality of life of young patients with congenital heart defects, sometimes even before the patient is born.

“There’s always a new story everyday… in healthcare, there’s rarely something that looks similar from one patient to another”, says Roldan-Alzate, of Medellín, Colombia. “I get to see both worlds [of radiology and engineering] and try to extrapolate my knowledge of engineering towards healthcare to benefit the quality of life in patients”.

Roldan-Alzate and his lab’s work primarily involves the study of cardiovascular systems and fluid dynamics. Coupling this with 3D printing allows for Roldan-Alzate and his team to predict how surgery will improve or affect the fluid dynamics in the patient’s body. He and his team at the UW Cardiovascular Fluid Dynamics laboratory are able to 3D print patient-specific models, typically blood vessels, and connect the printed vessel to a pump which simulates a living heart.

“It’s like designing a new piping system,” said Roldan-Alzate. “We can show [the surgeon] what’s going to happen if you open, close or connect something [in the heart simulation]”.

To take it one step further, Roldan-Alzate and his team analyze the cardiovascular system in fetal life and try to optimize surgical procedures before they are even born. By printing a three-dimensional actual size model of a fetus’ heart, they can show surgeons how the heart will look and what they will find upon entering the patient’s body. The surgeons are then able to improve their techniques and eliminate potential complications by practicing on this patient-specific model.

“[3D printing] has become more functional rather than just visualization” says Roldan-Alzate. “Rather than having a generic [implant] that’s two centimeters, if it needs to be 1.95 centimeters, we can [print] it to that exact scale and implant it”.

3D printing has become an important part of healthcare because of its allowance for better visualization. It would be difficult to examine a two-dimensional x-ray image and imagine how long or deep something is. 3D printing eliminates the need for imagination by providing a three-dimensional model which ultimately brings a different perspective to the surgical planning and treatment planning.

While 3D printing already has a fairly well-established place in healthcare, there are still some challenges present. Roldan-Alzate explained that 3D printing doesn’t allow for perfectly realistic textures and material properties, but expects that as technology advances, there will be resources to help with this. Additionally, by utilizing stem cell growth with 3D printing, there is future potential to be able to print organs for patients needing a transplant. Much like the patient-specific model of a heart, a transplant could also be made patient-specific and the body would accept it as if it were its own organ.

Roldan-Alzate is eager to share his knowledge and experience in the areas of engineering and healthcare. More specifically, he is proud to be at a university that allows for cross-college collaboration.

“I wanted not just to be a professor but to be a professor at [UW]”, said Roldan-Alzate. “It’s the idea of delivering the knowledge we are gaining as we advance as faculty. We learn everyday and it feels really nice to see that somebody else is getting that knowledge and moving it forward.”

Written by Rhiannon McCarthy