Aircraft Wing To Heart

A New Technique To Improve Heart Implants’ Design

A technology used to measure airflow over wings can now be used to keep ailing hearts in good shape. Known as Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) system, the technology has been optimised in a way that it could accurately measure the effects of medical implants on blood flow. This new avatar of PIV will help medical device manufacturers to improve the design of artificial implanted devices like heart valves and pumps. At the same time, it will be an indispensable tool for doctors to pin down and correct side-effects that affect patients having such implants.

“This system is likely to have a significant impact on the heart device market over the coming years. In fact, it could revolutionise heart treatments,” says Fabrizio Lagasco of D’Appolonia, an engineering consultancy company in Genoa, Italy who coordinates a team of researchers from Italy, Germany and Greece in developing the new PIV system. Also known as SMART-PIV project, the development of the new PIV system has been funded by Information Society Technologies.

The SMART-PIV system employs an optimised hardware with advanced image processing and numerical analysis software over a parallel computing subsystem to scan and pinpoint any hidden fault in any medical implants. At the core of the SMART-PIV system lays a miniaturised optical sensor technology that uses ultra-thin laser light sheets to capture images of the blood flowing through implanted devices. Numerical analysis is carried out on the images in a parallel computing subsystem allowing device designers or doctors to detect problems with the blood flow, such as high velocity that can cause blood cell damage. Low velocity, on the other hand, could lead to thrombosis or coagulation.

In trials, the SMART-PIV system has been able to wrap up analysis within a day in 80 per cent of cases and in less than two days in all cases. “As computer processing power increases we estimate that within two years the analysis could probably be performed in two to three hours,” Lagasco claims. “That compares with the weeks or months it can take to obtain results from using traditional PIV systems.” An easy-to-use Graphical User Interface (GUI) ensures that doctors and other technicians who are not experts in PIV technology can easily use the system.

This PIV system will be better than ultrasound scans which fall short of offering a detailed analysis of the causes of problems related to blood flow when modified by artificial implanted devices. In the field of biomedical device design, experiments involving the implantation of medical devices into animals can prove a device’s fitness, but such trials are time-consuming and expensive. Such trials also give no clues to the effects the implant will have in humans.

“A cow heart is different to a human heart,” Lagasco notes. “That can lead to unforeseen complications.” Heart valves, which are implanted into around 225,000 people worldwide each year and can prolong their lives for decades, lead to many patients requiring drugs to prevent clotting and thrombosis, which in turn raise their risk of severe bleeding. Such implants definitely play a vital role in prolonging the lives of people with heart disease. But the SMART-PIV system fits in the role of a watchdog as it carefully monitors the blood flow and efficiency of implants enhancing patients’ quality of life and their chances of long-term survival.

By applying the new PIV technology, Lagasco hopes, it will be possible to greatly enhance the performance of medical implants and grant patients more time to seek out a suitable donor for heart transplant. “With so few donors available compared to the people who need new hearts the number of people with implants is only going to continue increasing,” Lagasco says. Cardivascular disease is one of the culprits that claim millions of lives every year. “That is why we saw the need for this technology to be applied in the medical sector,” Lagasco says.

“We’re currently in talks with Sorin, a multinational producer of heart valves, and with an Italian company that is looking to use SMART-PIV to optimise the design of their VADs (ventricular-assist devices), battery-operated pumps that support a failing left ventricle (one of the four chambers of a heart) and help supply blood to the rest of the body” Lagasco says. “The commercial possibilities for the system are therefore extensive and a product based on the project results will probably be in use within the next few years.”

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