Amazing 3D simulation of human heart could change medical care

One of the challenges doctors face in diagnosing and treating abnormal heart conditions is understanding the mechanics of an individual's heart. Several companies have attempted to create usable 3D models of the heart. There are versions that recreate the exterior of the heart, and others that are in prototype. None of these allow a doctor to actually travel through the heart.

Now, Paris-based Dassault Systèmes says it has created the first simulation of a full human heart that offers this inside look. By projecting the simulation on a large screen, doctors can virtually walk through the valves, identifying issues that were previously hard to detect.

Designed by a team of cardiologists and medical professionals known as the Living Heart Project, the simulation uses images from diagnostic technology such as MRI, CT and echocardiogram scans to create personalized 3D models of individual hearts. The model accurately mimics the electrical and mechanical behaviors of the heart.

"It's really very useful for people who are looking at medical devices that are inserted in the heart," Steven Levine of Dassault Systèmes told CBS News. "Those devices are very hard to design for the realistic human environment because it's hard to actually replicate that without an actual beating heart."

In what the company calls the "3D Cave," the images of the heart are projected on three walls. The user is able to walk-through the 3D experience. "You can do things you can't do with a real heart," added Levine. "You can get a much greater understanding of the actual mechanics."

"We live in an exciting time with the capacity to simulate how a patient's heart may respond to a wide range of interventions, sparing that individual and many others the uncertainties of their procedural outcome," Dr. James C. Perry, Professor of Pediatrics at UC San Diego and Director of Electrophysiology and Adult CHD at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, said in a press release.

According to the World Health Organization, 17.3 million people died from cardiovascular diseases in 2008. That is about 30 percent of deaths around the world. The Living Heart Project creators say the simulated heart will also be useful as a teaching tool for medical students.

Watch the video in the player above to go inside the 3D heart.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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