The heart of the matter

The strange looking machine is a futuristic curiosity – made up of tubes emerging from a clear plastic box, a smaller attached object pumping in and out at regular intervals. There is a precise rhythm and an unexpected poetry of movement to the contraption.

Called a heart phantom, the device simulates cardiac motion – a steady beating of the heart. It is the brainchild of Terry Peters, PhD, and part of his impressive collection of image-guided surgical devices at Robarts Research Institute.

By simulating a heart, the device enables researchers to test aortic valve repair procedures.

Peters is one of three recipients at Robarts to receive a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Foundation Grant, totalling more than $6.6 million over seven years.

Cardiac surgery, including the heart phantom, is just one of four research themes Peters will be working on with his specific funding of more than $2.2 million. He is also looking at neurosurgery laparoscopic abdominal surgery and spinal interventions, each using different combinations of imaging modalities, tools and methodologies.

The goal of his work is to create minimally-invasive, image-guided surgical procedures, eliminating risks to patients and providing easily maneuverable solutions for surgeons.

“One of my favourite sayings is that surgery is a side-effect of therapy,” he explained. “If patients have complications from surgery, it’s not because of the actual therapy.”

By building simple imaging systems that surgeons can work with intuitively, Peters is hoping to combat surgical errors and improve performance.

“We’ve shown that if we use very simple image-guidance techniques, we can greatly improve the speed and the accuracy with which surgical procedures can be performed,” he said. “Ultimately, we’d like all machines to be like an iPhone – they don’t need a manual, you just know how to use them.” 

Fellow Robarts scientist Dr. Rob Hegele received more than $2.3 million for his research into understanding the genomic factors behind cardiovascular disease, strokes and diabetes. He says the funding will provide time to focus on what matters most.

“In addition to the recognition for my lab that comes with this highly competitive award, the duration of the funding is unprecedented,” he said. “The seven-year term will allow my team to focus on our scientific work, rather than on preparing new grant applications every couple of years.”

Dr. Geoff Pickering received more than $2.1 million to investigate the mechanisms related to vascular aging, repair and regeneration.

“This award enables us to pursue key research questions relating to vascular health and disease that we otherwise could not have taken on,” said Dr. Pickering. “It provides tremendous momentum for the entire team."

In addition to these Foundation Grants, several Robarts researchers have received CIHR Open Operating Grants totaling more than $2.8 million: Dr. Julio Martinz-Trujillo, Aaron Fenster, PhD, Caroline Schild-Poulter, PhD and Brian Corneil, PhD.