STEM SIGHTS: The Concordia grad student who investigates broken hearts
Researchers at Concordia — like Batoul El-Sayegh, a graduate student and manager of the university’s Cardiovascular Fluid Dynamics Lab — are using a mechanical heart to simulate the effects of aging valves on blood flow.
Under the supervision of Lyes Kadem, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, El-Sayegh studies the effect of a disease called Mitral Annular Calcification (MAC).
Her research examines the blood flow of real MAC patients using 3D-printed models of their heart valves.
El-Sayegh has already been able to quantify the amount of extra energy the heart has to expend in MAC patients. Now she is aiming to identify other key parameters related to the disease, in order to assist doctors in providing more targeted treatment.
'Can we fix broken hearts?'
Tell us more about the research you’re conducting and its intended impact.
Batoul El-Sayegh: My project investigates blood flow in the left ventricle in the presence of MAC. This disease causes a severe narrowing of the mitral valve leading to sub-optimal filling of the left ventricle.
The prevalence of MAC increases with age — MAC is found in approximately 42 per cent of people over 65 and 60 per cent of people over 85.
MAC is associated with increased mortality and valvular dysfunction, and increases the likelihood of other cardiovascular diseases, including stroke. Early detection and accurate estimation of its severity is essential for the successful limitation of progression and treatment.
At the moment, however, its diagnosis and evaluation is still very difficult. My work aims to find new parameters to better evaluate the severity of the disease.
How does the STITCH image (above, right) relate to your research at Concordia?
BE: The image shows a unique custom-made simulator capable of reproducing realistic flow conditions in the human heart. I use "simulation through in vitro testing on the complete heart" (STITCH) to conduct my experiments.
In addition to simulating the left side of the heart, it can investigate the effects of any valvular disease on this particular section of the organ.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The rainbow-like image at the top of this story illustrates flow inside the STITCH, coloured by velocity values. Red corresponds to larger velocity changes/rougher flow, and blue to smaller velocity changes/smoother flow. It's one of the main results obtained from the STITCH. The technique used to get these images is called particle image velocimetry — which is pretty cool and uses a lot of lasers!]
What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?
BE: Our major challenge is the necessity of trial and error — having the patience to tolerate recurring technical problems that can take months to be solved before actually having results.
What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?
BE: My work is done in collaboration with the Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Our collaborators supply us with valves from actual patients that are then modelled and 3D-printed. This means our work can be directly applied to the improvement of doctors’ knowledge of the leading cardiac diseases.
What person, experience or moment first inspired you to get involved in this field?
BE: What provoked me to continue my studies in cardiovascular fluid dynamics was a line I read on Lyes Kadem’s website: “Can we fix broken hearts?”
I interpreted it beyond the purely scientific meaning. Saving someone from cardiovascular disease can not only preserve the life of the patient but also heal the broken hearts of their loved ones.
How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research?
BE: Start by reading Kadem’s work. He is the director of the Laboratory of Cardiovascular Fluid Dynamics, and an amazing person for career advice. In addition, read whatever else you can about the field.
Also, seize the moment. There are several opportunities at Concordia, from being a summer student in the lab to joining the Capstone team, to becoming a graduate coworker with me!
What do you like best about being at Concordia?
BE: What I learned after going to different clinical and engineering conferences, and seeing how huge universities work, is that it is definitely not the rank or the size of the institution that matters.
Instead, it is people’s potential to give, to achieve and to help develop the lives of others — and Concordians have it. From the faculty to the students, there is no comparison.
Find out more about Concordia's Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering.