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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Doctors knew 14-month-old Roland had serious heart problems before he was even born.
With four congenital heart defects, a series of medications helped keep him alive.
"His growth was limited because of his heart defect," said Dr. Smitha Bullock, a pediatric cardiologist.
Doctors concluded surgery was necessary and that it would be a complicated one.
But with the help of engineers at U of L's Speed School, doctors created a 3D plastic replica of Roland's heart and all its problems.
The replica, doubled in scale, gave Dr. Erle Austin a view like he's never had before surgery, showing him where every blood vessel in Roland's heart was located.
He used it to develop the best game plan for surgery with the fewest number of incisions.
Dr. Erle Austin, a cardiothoraic surgeon said, "This is the most valuable perspective for me as a surgeon because I knew this child had a hole between these two pumping stations."
The model was built into three pieces to give doctors a better view. The total cost of the model was $600.
Brent Stucker from the Speed School of Engineering said, "It's not thousands of dollars, its hundreds of dollars and maybe even thousands of dollars in reduction in operating costs."
Doctors performed a successful surgery on Roland two weeks ago.
"If it means anything he was discharged on his 4th post operative day without any medications," Dr. Bullock said.
Today, it's a 3D printer making a model of a heart, but researchers are hoping to take this technology a step further, one day printing actual pieces of a heart, liver or knee.
The research is happening right now in downtown Louisville at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute.
"A number of us are actually regenerating heart muscle by taking collagen and heart cells and being able to take those into tissues that can repair the heart," said Dr. Bradley Keller of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute.
3D printing is now credited with saving the first life in Kentucky and has the potential to save many more.
"Our hope is this will just be a catalyst for these kinds of operations in the future," Stucker said.