UH Researchers Put a Lot of Heart Into Their Work

Aside from the obvious hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day, February is also the American Heart Association’s “Heart Month.” As you consider story ideas about heart disease, treatments and prevention, keep in mind the many innovative, ongoing projects in heart research at the University of Houston (UH).

Ravi Birla, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is one of the world’s leading researchers in the development of bioartificial hearts and heart components. Through this work, heart transplant waiting lists may one day be a thing of the past. Instead, patients at essentially any point in their care could receive bioartificial hearts grown in a lab. Birla’s research includes developing artificial heart muscle and parts of hearts, like ventricles and biological pumps. The star of his research portfolio, however, is the whole heart project, which is focused on developing full bioartificial hearts. Contact Birla at 713-743-8861 or rkbirla@uh.edu.

Led by Nikolaos V. Tsekos, an associate professor of computer science, researchers in UH’s Medical Robotics Laboratory are creating a robotic system to one day be used in cardiothoracic surgeries that would not only automate, but also increase the precision of surgeries. With its magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) robot, this surgical system makes it possible to perform procedures on the beating heart with real-time MRI guidance, while the patient remains inside the MR scanner. This shortens the duration of the procedure and improves accuracy, resulting in minimal trauma to patients. Contact Tsekos at 713-743-3350 or ntsekos@cs.uh.edu.

Researchers are working to help keep your heart beating stronger and longer simply by monitoring the temperature of your fingertip. VENDYS, a device co-developed by UH mechanical engineers, allows doctors to monitor how changes in blood flow affect finger temperature to measure an individual’s risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). The device is less invasive and more cost-effective than many traditional CVD screening methods. It consists of a blood pressure cuff and detector that are hooked up to a computer equipped with specialized software. Unlike most other methods, the results paint a picture of an individual’s vascular health. For more information, contact Ralph Metcalfe at 713-743-4503 or metcalfe@uh.edu.

Kirill Larin, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is collaborating with scientists at Baylor College of Medicine to document the formation of the mammalian heart through a high-resolution, non-invasive imaging device, which rivals the current methods of ultrasound, in vitro studies of fixed tissue samples, and amphibian and fish embryo analysis. Able to image life as it happens by capturing video of the embryonic heart before it begins beating, the team’s technique studies what leads to cardiovascular abnormalities, with the potential to shed light on how to prevent and treat heart-related problems before birth. Contact Larin at 713-743-4623 or klarin@uh.edu.

Ioannis Kakadiaris, computer science professor and director of the Computational Biomedicine Lab at UH, and collaborators from a variety of national and international medical institutions are breaking new ground in predicting your risk for disease. Their goal is to uncover a potential ticking “time bomb” in the heart. The collaboration focuses on analyzing large volumes of data that will help physicians detect patients who are at risk of heart attack in a 12-month period and develop a “cardiovascular risk score.” Recent developments have allowed the team to improve the risk prediction by 18 percent and to detect “in-vivo” microvessels linked to plaque inflammation, which represent regions of blood vessels prone to future rupture and sudden blockage. Improved risk prediction is essential in cardiology to reduce the number of annual fatalities due to unpredicted heart attacks and strokes. Contact Kakadiaris at 713-743-1255 or ioannisk@uh.edu.

Scientists at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH are researching effective detection methods to consistently measure and quantify changes in fetal beat-to-beat heart activity through gestation, using superconducting sensor technology. There is a strong demand for accurate diagnostic assessment of the physiological development of the fetus as more pre- and full-term babies survive with various disorders. Superconducting technology may aid obstetrical and neonatal health care providers in the recognition of fetuses predestined for untoward events in the future. Contact Audrius Brazdeikis, UH research associate professor of physics, at 713-743-8219 or audrius@uh.edu.

Suncica Canic is a mathematician, not a medical doctor, but her research could save the lives of heart patients. By developing complex mathematical models evaluating how blood flows in pulsating arteries and how artery stents behave when inserted into the human body, Canic is working to create more biocompatible devices that can keep arteries open. Canic is director of the Center for Mathematical Biosciences that aims to integrate advanced mathematics with medical research to achieve medical breakthroughs. The center is comprised of three dozen UH researchers, including 14 bioscience mathematicians, as well as Rice University and Texas Medical Center collaborators. Contact Canic at 713-743-3466 or scanic@uh.edu.

UH College of Pharmacy researchers are investigating how the function and activity of a specific receptor in the body is affected by anti-oxidants and oxidative stress, which could provide new insights into such conditions as high blood pressure – a key risk factor in heart attack and stroke – as well as the effect obesity and diabetes on high blood pressure. Mustafa F. Lokhandwala and Anees A. Banday recently received $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the molecular mechanisms of a kidney receptor that produces antioxidant enzymes that help reduce the oxidative stress that can result in high blood pressure and possible heart attack or stroke. Fellow NIH-funded researcher Tahir Hussain is investigating the role of a receptor to lower blood pressure and improve kidney function, especially in diabetic patients where abnormal kidney function can impair elimination of excess sodium and lead to hypertension. Contact Lokhandwala at 713-743-3777 or mlokhandwala@uh.edu or Hussain at 713-743-1276 or thussain@central.uh.edu.

Faculty and student researchers of the College of Pharmacy’s Heart and Kidney Institute at UH and colleagues at fellow Texas Medical Center institutions study the pathophysiological mechanisms that impact cardiovascular disease, hypertension and other diseases and disorders related to the heart, as well as develop potential pharmacological therapies to treat them. Current research projects include effects of antioxidants and oxidative stress on such conditions as hypertension, how obesity and diabetes can increase the risk of hypertension, and the biochemical function and cell communication processes related to heart muscle contraction and relaxation. Contact the institute’s director, Mustafa F. Lokhandwala at 713-743-3777 or mlokhandwala@uh.edu.

There soon may be more options for those needing a heart transplant thanks to a device being developed by the Texas Heart Institute in collaboration with two UH professors. The device emulates how the natural heart responds to physiological conditions within the body. Existing devices mimic the pulsating pump action of the natural heart. This proposed total artificial heart replaces the pulsatile feature with two pulseless continuous flow pumps, each about the size of a C battery. Matthew Franchek and Ralph Metcalfe, both mechanical engineering professors in the Cullen College of Engineering at UH, are part of the biomedical research team working to create this pulseless total artificial heart. Contact Metcalfe at 713-743-4503 or metcalfe@uh.edu and Franchek at 713-743-4502 or mfranchek@uh.edu.


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