Engineers and doctors from the University of Melbourne are working together to image, model and print patients' heart arteries in 3D, in intricate detail.

Video: 3D printed artery (via University of Melbourne's' YouTube channel) 

The models are providing doctors with new information about the elaborate details of the heart and its arteries, and by using supercomputers to measure turbulence and blood flow.

A person will suffer a heart attack in Australia every nine minutes, and cardiac surgeons are constantly looking for new ways to treat and predict blockages before an attack occurs.

Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is a technique that uses a camera thinner than a human hair to record super high-resolution images of the heart's arteries.  This information is fed to supercomputers which assist researchers in understanding the finer details of blood flow and cholesterol plaques.

Engineers can then use this information and images to build 3D artery models.

Associate Professor Peter Barlis, Honorary Principal Fellow at the Melbourne Medical School and the Melbourne School of Engineering introduced OCT to Australia in 2009, and the technology is now used in every major hospital.

Associate Professor Barlis and his team have received two Australian Research Council grants to work with the School of Engineering at Melbourne University to identify a biocompatible polymer that is able to be printed in 3D.  The polymer can then be used to produce heart stents to precisely match patients' physical specifications, reducing the risk of complications.

The team is also investigating the possibility of dissolvable polymers that disintegrate over time and also deliver medication to the targeted area in the heart.  It is hoped that such polymers should be widely available in the next two to three years.

The team is currently able to print heart models within a day. However it is hoped that technological advancements will allow them to print models while the patient is in surgery, and ultimately print custom heart stents on the spot.

With more than 180 biotech companies, 10 major medical research institutes, 10 teaching hospitals and nine universities. Victoria leads the nation in medical research and development.Victoria is Australia's undisputed leader in medical research, annually receiving over 40 per cent of national government medical research funding.