The Living Heart Project: Transforming Healthcare with Virtual 3D Modeling

The COE 2017 Annual Experience and TechniFair is a three-day event for expert users of Dassault Systèmes solutions taking place April 23-26 in Orlando.   We had the chance to catch up with Steven Levine, Ph.D., Chief Strategy Officer & Executive Director, Living Heart Project for Dassault Systèmes, who will present, “The Living Heart Project – Engineering Our Future,” on the main stage.

What is the Living Heart Project?

Steven Levine: The Living Heart Project is a worldwide initiative that brings together a multidisciplinary community to develop accurate virtual models of the human heart – using the same computer aided engineering tools that have been validated for virtual testing of cars, planes and other mechanical products.    Our aim is to transform healthcare by taking what we have learned from these industries, and applying the same principles to the practice of medicine. By creating very robust 3D models, we’ll enable researchers, surgeons, students, medical device and medical treatment developers to analyze, test and explore this vital organ in the finest detail before, during and after they treat the real thing.

Who or what inspired you to develop the Living Heart project?

Steven Levine: At Dassault Systemes, we recognized a transformation was happening in the world with a convergence among the products people use, their lifestyles, and the impact these products have on the world itself. Our CEO Bernard Charlès called it “Harmonizing Product, Nature and Life,” and this idea redefined our purpose as a company. As I considered the role our simulation technology could have in this bold future, I looked to my own life experience and immediately saw our challenge. You see, my daughter was born with a very rare congenital defect whereby her major heart chambers were reversed, and for more than 25 years, I have watched the best cardiologists in the world struggle to understand and often guess how to help her heart function. As her condition was so rare, they had little past observational evidence to guide them.  It became clear to me that when faced with such a unique situation, there was limited understanding of the mechanics of the heart.  The medical community relies primarily on empirical evidence that could not easily be extrapolated.

I thought if engineers were limited in this same fashion, there would be no cars or planes or even bicycles for that matter, so why not think differently about doctors?   I sought to build a community of experts who would help build and share a comprehensive model of the human heart that used the knowledge we have gained to replicate the behavior of a real heart, and make it available to everyone. Because we would rely on sound principles of physics, the model could then be adapted to consider any shape, size or condition, just as we do with cars, planes and bicycles. With a common model of the human heart, would have the foundation of a new way to design devices, treatments and deliver care.

What are the key challenges you’re trying to solve through the Living Heart Project?

Steven Levine: In my broadest vision, I would like to see the Living Heart Project deconstruct the walls we have built between disciplines of Science, Engineering, Medicine, etc. Engineers take things apart, understand how they work and then build better versions based on what they learn. When they can’t understand they hand off to scientists to dig deeper.  Doctors rely on these communities to deliver devices, medicines and the guidance on how to use them.  Thanks to our 3DEXPERIENCE platform, for the first time in history we can have a collaborative, digital backbone that will deeply understand and potentially unite these communities.  We’d already brought much of the best physics, chemistry and biology onto our platform and combined it with the world’s most powerful 3D modeling environment. The Living Heart Project was the first project that cemented our vision, and is now being followed by other amazing efforts such as the 3DEXPERIENCity or virtual city planning.

When you talk about engineering the future, how can engineering principles used to design cars, airplanes and bicycles apply to medicine?

Steven Levine:  There is a lot of synergy to be gained. I believe the best engineering is the pursuit of an optimal design which is the best balance of efficiency, reliability, reproducability, and aesthetics. Nature is the best engineer, and has refined the life all around us to optimize these very characteristics. As I described before, engineers struggle to learn the secrets that nature learned about this optimization because they are hidden in the complexity of the body. Using the virtual world we can recreate what nature has built and thereby reveal the hidden knowledge, which will open an entirely new horizon for engineering. This is more than just biologically inspired shapes and structures that can now be 3D printed, it means products that adapt to changes in their environment or use as does nature. Harmony between these products and the people who use them will be enhanced both functionally and aesthetically because they follow similar principles.

When these products are intended to be used with or inside the human body, the ability to design and test virtually will unlock innovation that has been stifled by cost or the limits of physical testing in labs, animals or people. When choosing the best treatment option, clinicians can better understand the situation through informative 3D models just as we do with the things we build. They can run options digitally to determine the best course of action, and practice surgeries before ever stepping into the operating room. I believe in the future, surgeons will look back and wonder how we would ever perform a complicated surgery without first trying it on the computer to be sure we knew what would be best.  We have taken the first step into that future and it is very exciting. Even more exciting is that other communities, the brain, eyes, spine, knees, foot etc. are following this example and bringing their innovations onto our 3DEXPERIENCE platform. I can see a time when my medical record is not just a collection of tests and 2D images, but rather a working 3D model of my body, which grows more like me with every test I take and all of the data it receives from monitors such as smart watches and smart clothing.  My doctor will have all of the information immediately available to make better decisions and share the care of my health with me in a way I can understand. We can all contribute to make this future happen.