A new study carried out by King's College London is looking to create virtual heart avatars to aid in the treatment of a serious congenital heart defect that affects thousands of newborns. The condition, known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), is known to affect roughly one in 5,000 newborns each year.

For babies suffering from HLHS, structures within the heart including the left ventricle, the mitral valves and the aortic valve fail to develop during pregnancy, or are too small to operate properly. This makes it very difficult for the heart to pump the oxygen-rich blood around the body with the ability of a healthy heart, leading to trouble breathing, a weak pulse, and blue-ish skin.

We do not yet know what factors cause HLHS, but a series of developments in medical practice have improved how surgeons approach the problem. In spite of these advances many children still die, or are at least greatly affected by the condition for the rest of their lives, even after the multiple surgeries that are required within the first few years in order to manage the disease.

Under normal circumstances, medical practitioners hoping to tackle the condition are hamstrung by the variations that can be exhibited by the disease, making it difficult to know which course of treatment would best serve the patient.

The new study seeks to grant surgeons an unprecedented level of understanding of the disease on a case-by-case basis. Over the course of the study, an analysis of MRI scans collected from over 150 babies will inform advanced computer programs to create a detailed 3D virtual avatar of each baby's heart, including the aorta.

It is hoped that the culmination of the research will grant surgeons the ability to asses each patient on an individual basis, allowing for personalized treatment plans to become the norm, in which surgeons can observe a patient's heart before surgery, and monitor its post treatment status.