Biomedical engineering professor receives grant to model heart mitral valves

Alyssa Mahoney

A University professor received a $6.6 million research grant awarded from the National Institutes of Health to research functioning and nonfunctioning heart mitral valves, which could help prevent some forms of cardiovascular disease.

By modeling the heart mitral valve using 3-D simulation, biomedical engineering professor Michael Sacks said he hopes to develop a more accurate and constitutive model of the heart mitral valve. The heart mitral valve regulates blood flow from the left atrium to the ventricle. He said he hopes the model will lead to improvements in surgical procedures for mitral valve repairs.

Michael Sacks said if the mitral valve isn’t working properly, blood regurgitates backward and can cause heart attacks or heart failure. There are differences in the geometries of patients’ hearts, and in the long term, Sacks said he hopes that heart mitral valve operations will be patient-specific. These tailored alterations may include new materials, augmenting or contracting the valve or otherwise surgically modifying the valve.

Biomedical engineering senior Jake Sacks worked with Michael Sacks, his father, in his lab. Jake Sacks said he helped develop a computational model that could accurately predict the tissue’s fiber orientation. Eventually, the model will help predict how the heart reacts under stress and what changes occur in the mechanical properties of diseased hearts. 

Jake Sacks said what makes this computational research so appealing is that it aims to understand the fundamental ways bodies work.

“Eventually, if the computational techniques can reach the point of providing patient-specific care, the success rates of surgery will skyrocket,” Jake Sacks said. “There is a fundamental flaw in generalized approaches that hopefully this work can help overcome.”

Michael Sacks said as with a lot of surgical developments, surgical procedures done on the heart mitral valve in the past 15 years or so have focused on an immediate clinical problem — figuring out how to fix an issue, but not necessarily knowing how or why it worked. Using his federal grant, Michael Sacks said he hopes to better understand why certain heart valve replacements and surgical procedures work and how to improve them.

A grant awarded to Michael Sacks last year involved his research which used modeling to determine what materials would work best for surgical procedures. He had to consider the proper physical characteristics, cellular interactions and chemical interactions.

Chung-Hao Lee, a postdoctoral fellow who works with Michael Sacks, said with this grant, he and Sacks will use patient-specific computer simulations as a guide to test three new annuloplasty rings that will help the mitral valve function on a cellular, tissue and organ level.

“If all goes well, we hope that by the end of the five-year grant, the designs will be ready for clinical trials, which can greatly improve the functionality of the mitral valve and enhance long-term durability,” Lee said. “This will resolve current issues of repair durability and high disease recurrence rates.”

Jake Sacks said by developing a clear and constitutive model of the mitral valve, patient-specific approaches will become much more feasible.

“Finally, we can achieve what only science fiction has dreamed possible,” Jake Sacks said. “Understanding how things work on a fundamental level is not just about mathematical rigor, but about how we can more efficiently improve society.”