Building a Better Heart

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A UT researcher’s latest grant is very good news for the 40,000 Americans who undergo surgery every year for one of the most common types of heart disease.

Biomedical engineer Michael Sacks, who also directs UT’s Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES), has won a five-year, $6.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop computer simulations to improve and repair damaged mitral valves—a major source of heart failure.

“We still don’t completely understand how this valve works,” Sacks says. “They’re very complex, and it takes a lot of computer horsepower to model them.”

The simulations—which Sacks plans to create in collaboration with UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center—will be used to help develop more permanent surgical repair solutions for mitral valve disease. The disease is caused when blood moves backward from the left ventricle to the left atrium and can produce abnormal heart rhythms and failure.

Current treatments include using an annuloplasty ring to reshape the valve, but that’s not a permanent fix: 60 percent of patients who undergo mitral valve repair have problems recur just three to five years after surgery, according to an ICES press release. While Sacks stresses that his research is still in an early conceptual stage, he’s hoping that his advanced software modeling will one day allow bioengineers and physicians to give each patient a cardiac prosthetic custom-tailored to their own heart.

“What I see happening is a software package we could use to help suggest the best plan for a particular patient,” he says. “A surgical group could send us information on a valve, and we could do predictive models and what-if scenarios before proposing what may be the best approach for that individual.”

If successful, Sacks—along with colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology and The University of Pennsylvania—plans to apply the research toward improved designs for mitral valve prosthetics. “In five years, if all goes well, we hope to move toward software development and limited clinical trials,” he says. “It’s exciting.”

Photo: a still from a video simulation of a mitral valve. Courtesy ICES.

Featured illustration courtesy codicetuna on Flickr.

With additional reporting by Rose Cahalan.


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