By Fran Broderick
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease in the leading cause of death in the United States. Nearly 600,000 Americans die every year from heart disease and as health officials warn the public about heart dangers like obesity and smoking, researchers are working to find the next generation of treatments.
Enter Linwei Wang, a professor and researcher in the Golisano College Ph.D. department. Wang has been making waves – literally and figuratively – in heart disease research through her team’s development of algorithms designed to track and monitor electrical waves in the heart. “The electrical waves [in the heart] control contractions,” explains Wang. “So, if these waves are not functioning correctly we see arrhythmia.”
One of the most lethal forms of arrhythmia arises when diseased tissue in the heart causes electrical waves to keep cycling rather than traveling along their intended route. The situation can quickly lead to cardiac arrest. Doctors typically treat these cases by burning healthy tissue surrounding the diseased tissue, in an effort to stymie the troublesome electrical waves. However, this procedure – called catheter ablation – is invasive and can take upwards of twelve hours.
The desire to find a better solution is part of the reason the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded Wang’s team more than $400,000 to continue her study of a novel analysis method that uses an algorithm to track electrical waves in the heart without the need for invasive, expensive procedure.
“The algorithm outputs a 3D model of electrical propagation for a particular patient,” says Wang. “Some patients are better suited to forego surgery but we can’t know without understanding the extent of the tissue disease. The algorithm will help prevent wasteful and unnecessary treatments.” More importantly, for patients who need a catheter ablation, this algorithm will guide the physicians to the ablation target without hours of invasive mapping.
Wang’s research – which includes work by Golisano College Ph.D. students Azar Rahimi and Jingjia Xu – has been recognized before, but this latest batch of funding will help propel the research toward clinical trials. The NIH grant will fund a two-year project to study the efficacy of the algorithm on animal hearts, specifically pigs, whom Wang explains share a cardiac system similar to that of humans.
Wang is working with a team that includes Dr. Albert Lardo of Johns Hopkins University and Dr. Saman Nazarian, a physician that works on ablation procedures. The pig testing will take place at Johns Hopkins with the data then being transferred to RIT for Wang’s team’s analysis.
Wang acknowledges it will still be some time before humans can take advantage of her research but is excited about a future where we can explore the heart without piercing the skin: “Processes like Dense Body Surface Mapping are currently available but these only offer a surface-level view of the heart. Our process will soon enable us to explore below the surface.”