Engineering New Possibilities
Posted June 06, 2018
Dr. Ashley Saunders, Dr. Mark Wierzbicki, and Dr. Duncan
For decades, biomedical engineers have used their acumen to
revolutionize healthcare through the development of devices, tools,
equipment, techniques, and pharmaceuticals that have advanced the
medical field in ways previously unimaginable.
While patients around the world have benefited from this
ingenuity, those patients almost exclusively have had one thing in
common—they’ve all been human.
Researchers in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine
& Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and the College of Engineering have
teamed up to begin filling that gap in the biomedical engineering
field—that of veterinary medicine—by exploring the possibilities of
what can be accomplished when innovative minds come together.
Getting to the Heart of the Problem
Dr. Ashley Saunders, a professor of cardiology and clinician in
the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital’s (VMTH) small animal
cardiology service, began using 3-D imaging and printing to create
models of the heart to aid in the teaching of anatomy and preparing
for complex surgeries for animals. But while 3-D models are useful
in this regard, the technology has not been a definitive training
tool, especially in the case of treating minimally invasive
Saunders trains cardiology resident Derek Matthews using the
model she helped develop.
Cardiology residents are taught heart and blood vessel
catheterization through observation and practice, relying on an
understanding of the anatomy and the feel of inserting a catheter
to perform a procedure.
Teaching catheterization using 3-D printed models is difficult
because doctors can’t see inside the blood vessels they’re trying
to navigate, and it’s also difficult to replicate the feel of an
animal’s blood vessels; therefore, doctors have to learn
catheterization on a beating heart.
“That’s how you learn,” Saunders said. “That’s how I
Because heart defects like patent ductus arteriosus (PDA)—a
congenital defect characterized by an opening between two blood
vessels leading from the heart—are the most commonly addressed
congenital defect by cardiologists at Texas A&M’s Small Animal
Hospital (SAH), Saunders began looking to create a safer
environment in which residents could learn and practice, one in
which the stakes weren’t quite so high.
Enter Dr. Duncan Maitland, the Stewart & Stevenson Professor
I in the College of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical
Engineering, and Dr. Mark Wierzbicki, a post-doctoral researcher in
Maitland’s Biomedical Device Laboratory.
Synthesizing a Solution
Maitland, whose research focuses on novel treatments for
cardiovascular disease, had previously worked with a VMTH
cardiovascular doctor to create devices for use in the operating
room; the doctor encouraged Maitland and the biomedical engineers
in his lab to move toward creating devices for animal patients.
The model simulates a real PDA procedure by allowing students to
feel what it’s like to pass a catheter while watching the movement
on a screen.
“I learned long ago that we could reduce the number of animal
iterations on device development if we brought clinicians in, or
even imported our models into the clinical environment for more
advanced testing,” Maitland said. “Just getting iterations on
models of real anatomies reduces the number of animals that need to
be used in studies, and the quality of devices goes up
Maitland’s lab had developed blocks made of silicone to test
devices created to treat cardiovascular diseases. One day, Saunders
toured Maitland’s lab and immediately began thinking about how the
technology could be applied to help her train residents to treat
“The silicone block was made to resemble a PDA, and I knew we
could use the 3-D prints from our patients to make one that is more
anatomically correct,” Saunders said.
And that’s exactly what she and Wierzbicki, a doctoral student
at the time, did. The two put their heads together and devised a
plan that would combine the 3-D imaging technology Saunders was
already using with the silicone-based technology Wierzbicki was
exploring for his dissertation.
The final product looks like a clear, rubber block, inside
which, upon closer inspection, has the outline of several “tubes.”
These tubes are arteries cast from the actual heart from one of
Saunders’ canine patients. To make the cast, Saunders used CT scans
to create a 3-D representation of the dog’s heart printed on the
3-D printer in Maitland’s laboratory.
“We were able to 3-D print the CT scanned heart using a
dissolvable material and vapor polish the printed model to smooth
out the ridges from the 3-D printing process,” Wierzbicki said. “We
took the smooth, 3-D printed heart, cast silicone around the model,
and then dissolved out the 3-D-printed part. After completing those
steps, we were left with a model Dr. Saunders could use for
The result was a solution to multiple problems—not only did the
project become part of Wierzbicki’s dissertation, but it produced
anatomically correct, customized models that might change the way
budding cardiologists are trained to learn catheterization
techniques and repair heart defects.
To create an even more realistic setting, Saunders incorporated
a camera that projects what the doctors are seeing onto a computer
screen so that they train on a simulated heart that mimics a true
“When we do these procedures in a dog, we can’t see inside the
body; we use fluoroscopy, with images displayed on a screen that we
have to look up at. So, it is important to learn how to do these
procedures by watching a screen,” she said. “We can mimic the
procedure by having the silicone blocks, because they have the
anatomy inside, and the block is clear, so they can see through it;
the document camera displays the image up on my computer
“They watch as they pass a catheter in and they learn how to do
the procedure by getting the feel of inserting a device,” she said.
“It doesn’t require fluoroscopy or radiation, and it doesn’t
require them being inside an actual dog to practice for the first
The best part—the silicone blocks are virtually indestructible.
“This means you can take the block into a training lab setting,
knowing that it’s going to stand up to being used over and over
again,” Saunders said.
The Future of Biomedical Engineering: Just a Heartbeat
Saunders, Maitland, and Wierzbicki
Because of what the model means for how doctors treat cardiac
defects, Saunders, Wierzbicki, and Maitland have published multiple
papers related to the model and other devices used in
Saunders also has begun using the model in training exercises
and labs for both residents and specialists who have an interest in
catheterization techniques and interventional cardiology. During a
recent training that included specialists from around the world,
Saunders found that the doctors responded enthusiastically to the
“They really loved it,” she said. “They said they feel like
they’re more comfortable practicing with the model; it makes more
sense to them.”
While most companies that manufacture devices for human
cardiology currently aren’t interested in making devices for
animals, as more and more veterinary surgeons begin recognizing the
value of this kind of model, Maitland said he hopes that attention
will open the doors for more opportunities for collaboration
between biomedical engineers and the field of veterinary
“If you look at all of engineering, and biomedical engineering,
specifically, you don’t think about animal health care as a primary
focus. We’re not trained to do that, and so there are not enough
partnerships going on between the two colleges, and specifically
biomedical and the CVM,” said Maitland, who is chairing a committee
in his department to do just that. “I think we could make a lot of
impact, and in this case, not just with what Ashley is developing
for training, but we can also impact the technologies that are used
in animal health care significantly, if we just pay attention to
For more information about the Texas A&M College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our
website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of CVM Today magazine.
Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive
Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas
A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; firstname.lastname@example.org;
979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)
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