LONDON Five centuries after Leonardo da Vinci's intricate drawings transformed understanding of the human heart, a new computer model promises to do the same for modern-day cardiac care, experts say.
The model -- so realistic its four chambers beat in the same asymmetrical rhythm on screen as does a real heart in the human body -- is the work of three British doctors who say the creation will improve both training and care during surgery.
The three-dimensional model's intricate details coupled with life-like animation that doctors can easily manipulate make the cyber heart unique, said Sue Wright, an anesthesiologist at the Heart Hospital in London who helped design the heart.
"We can slice it, spin it around and look at it from any angle. We have reproduced the timing of the human heart beat to within 20 milliseconds," she said in an interview.
The new model will lead to better care, said Robert Anderson, a heart structure expert at University College London.
The Italian master's drawings showed the heart was a muscle with four chambers, he noted. They also suggested that arteries could clog up over a lifetime, posing a risk to health.
"At the time, da Vinci's sketches opened up a new approach to the understanding of cardiac structure," said Anderson, also a visiting professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. "The new model is just as important, since it sets a new paradigm for understanding cardiac structure."
The pharmaceutical industry is also eyeing virtual models of the human body as a quicker and more cost-effective way to predict how developmental drugs may work in different
parts of the body.
The three doctors at the Heart Hospital in London say they designed their virtual heart because they felt current two-dimensional models were not accurate enough.
These limitations make it harder to teach students how to perform a complicated ultrasound scan of the heart that entails guiding a probe down through the throat to the stomach.
"We were trying to teach people the anatomy of the heart using inaccurate models," Wright said.
During a recent demonstration, Wright showed how a few mouse clicks allows a doctor to examine the inside or outside walls and intricate structures of the heart, which pumps about five liters of blood per minute.
Recreating that kind of detail was not easy. It took four years of tapping the expertise of dozens of doctors who each specialized on different parts of the heart.
They also analyzed hundreds of previous models and enlisted a company known for its work on films to provide the technical know-how to translate the data they had gathered into a software program to power the virtual heart on screen.
"We based a lot of the model on surgical data and surgeons who have had their hands in the chest," Wright said.
(Reporting by Michael Kahn; Editing by Maggie Fox and Matthew Jones)