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Behold, the First Totally Soft Artificial Heart

This 3D printed silicone heart could be custom designed for individual patients.

The quest to design an artificial heart tailored to individual patients took a big step forward today with the unveiling of the first 3D printed, entirely soft artificial heart. The silicone heart was developed by researchers at ETH Zurich, a university in Switzerland, in an attempt to make an artificial heart that can mimic the real deal.

Although the artificial heart is only a prototype, it aims to fill a growing demand for heart transplants around the world. Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, claiming over 600,000 American lives every year. Many Americans that have experienced complete heart failure have no option other than a heart transplant. And while 2,000 Americans get a heart transplant each year, there are 3,000 people on the waiting list at any given time.

Unlike many previous attempts at developing an artificial heart, the Zurich model is "roughly the same size as the patient's own and imitates the human heart as closely as possible in form and function," according to Nicholas Cohrs, a doctoral student at ETH Zurich. Most blood pumps only roughly resemble real human hearts, and making hearts that fit a variety of patients has been a serious design challenge.The advantage of using a 3D printer to make the heart is that the designs can be tailored to the individual.

The artificial heart weighs 390 grams, slightly more than a real heart—which weighs 300 grams in a man and 245 grams in a woman, on average—and was 3D printed from silicone. Despite being the closest artificial approximation to a real heart around, the device still needs a lot of work before it's ready to be used by humans. As detailed in the peer-reviewed journal Artificial Organs, the heart can only last for about 3,000 beats, or roughly 45 minutes, due to the strain exercised on the silicone material while it pumps.

"This was simply a feasibility test," said Cohrs. "Our goal was not to present a heart ready for implantation, but to think about a new direction for the development of artificial hearts."

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