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MINNEAPOLIS — Threading a catheter in the heart is tricky business, even when you’re just doing it in virtual reality.

It certainly wasn’t easy for me to pick up when I visited the Medical Devices Center here recently at the University of Minnesota. By the time my lesson in simulated device testing was over, I’d learned what goes into tailoring a life-saving product to a certain person’s heart, even if I hadn’t even remotely succeeded at doing so.


This kind of immersive, three-dimensional experience is at the cutting-edge of medical device innovation today. By bringing together interactive designers, engineers, and medical professionals, labs around the world are beginning to test the fit and function of stents, artificial hips, and other medical devices and implants on virtually reproduced organs throughout the body. They can also bring up models of an actual organ in a specific patient to practice a procedure before ever stepping foot in an operating room.

The Minneapolis center is at the forefront of this revolution, especially for devices aimed at treating cardiovascular disease. One floor below the lab, there are 200 human hearts preserved in jars, some normal and some with defects like holes, calcifications, or severely blocked arteries. Each heart has been scanned into a 3-D model, so that if a manufacturer wants to test a device on a heart like one in actual patients with certain conditions, it can.

“We can say, ‘Let’s bring up a heart with calcifications,’ and design a pacemaker or a valve for it,” said Arthur Erdman, director of the Medical Devices Center. In this way, researchers and medical device companies can try things first in a computer-simulated world with the hope that they can minimize adverse events in the real one.


Dan Keefe manipulates a heart model at the University of Minnesota Medical Devices Center.
Dan Keefe manipulates a heart model at the University of Minnesota Medical Devices Center. Megan Thielking/STAT

The technology displays the heart on two large screens: one allows you to drag and drop a device and resize it like you would on an iPad; the other displays what that does to the heart as a whole.

According to Dan Keefe, who runs UMinn’s Interactive Visualization Lab, which partners with the device testing center, virtual reality offers promise for more streamlined testing of medical devices. “We hope it can reduce dependency on animal testing,” he said.

But the technology isn’t limited just to prototyping. It also could be quite useful for training medical professionals.

“It’s like the equivalent in medicine of the aircraft simulator that pilots could train on,” said Dr. M. Narendra Kini, head of Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, which has worked to implement virtual reality in medical education.

And while the field of virtual reality has remained mainly in academic medicine, there are promising applications in other areas of health care. One such avenue: Showing patients exactly the steps of a surgery or procedure and what happens afterward, to ease confusion and concerns of patients.

“It could bring the consenting process to life,” Kini said. “This technology could really go a long way.”