BOSTON (CBS) – Many kids born with heart defects need surgery to save their lives but it can be difficult for doctors to visualize the abnormalities before going to the operating room.

As Dr. Mallika Marshall reports, doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital are using 3D printer technology to give surgeons a whole new look into and feel of the human heart.

“Whenever we make these models everyone wants to grab them and pick them up and rotate them around and play with them in their hand,” says Dr. Andy Powell, a pediatric cardiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

3D heart used by doctors at Boston Children's Hospital (WBZ-TV)

3D heart used by doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital (WBZ-TV)

That’s because until now, specialists have had to rely on 2-dimensional images of the heart by CT scan or MRI and then create a 3-dimensional model of the heart in their head before taking a child to the operating room to perform an often complicated procedure.

No two hearts are the same, especially in children with heart defects, so researchers, like Danielle Pace of MIT, are helping heart specialists build these 3D printed models, customized to an individual patient.

Doctors at Boston Children’s are already using the 3D heart models to treat kids born with heart defects. Now they want to find out if it really does improve patient outcomes.

They should know within a couple of years, but right now it’s costly and time consuming to build one of these hearts. Pace is trying to make the process more efficient and less expensive. It’s very gratifying as a computer scientist to be able to work on something that has fairly immediate applications,” she explains.

Dr. Powell says the models will not only help doctors but teach parents as well. “It’s really important for parents to understand what’s wrong with their child’s heart and we feel like the better they understand it the better they can partner with us in terms of taking care of their child,” says Dr. Powell.

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