Q&A with Maria Drangova, PhD

Maria Drangova, PhD, sat down with us to talk about her current research projects, the importance of collaboration and the value of community interest in Robarts.

What current research projects are you working on?
I work on several research projects, ranging from developing micro-CT techniques for CT-based three-dimensional histology to developing image-guided therapies.
Much of my research focuses on trying to improve cardiovascular therapies related to electro-physiological procedures for arrhythmias – particularly atrial fibrillation. We are trying to extract more information from MRI and CT images to improve procedure efficacy by providing previously unavailable information to the electrophysiologist performing the procedure. Such information includes the location of scar tissue or a map of wall thickness, which is important in determining for how long to deliver a lesion.
My lab is also developing robotic devices that allow us to deliver therapies more precisely. One such development is a robot that would enable catheter-based electrophysiological procedures to be performed under the guidance of an MRI scanner. MRI is useful because it can provide much better visualization of the tissue that is being treated, primarily providing information about how complete a lesion is. The elements that we have worked on involve the remote manipulation of a catheter under MRI guidance, which is significant because the large magnetic fields of an MRI scanner, its large bore and loud noise make the performance of procedures challenging. By enabling the electrophysiologist to perform the procedure from a remote location ensures a better working environment and improved communication with the supporting staff.
My lab has also made some very exciting developments in the area of tissue characterization in MRI. That work is primarily done with Junmin Liu, PhD, a very talented research scientist in my lab. The possibilities offered by these developments have initiated yet another collaboration with clinicians at London Health Sciences Centre. Working with stroke neurologist Dr. Luciano Sposato (Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences), neuroradiologists and electrophysiologists, I have started an imaging project that explores the link of atrial fibrillation and stroke. Our MRI-based tissue characterization technique promises to reduce the recurrence rate of strokes, among numerous other applications.
How important is collaboration in your work?
Collaboration among scientists is critical, but I can’t overestimate how important it is to interact with clinicians. It’s true for everything we do in imaging – one has to take the opportunity to be immersed in the clinical workflow in order to to understand it, then form research ideas.
As an example, one of my students, Daniel Gelman – an electrical engineer with expertise in robotics – started working  on a project that was aiming to integrate robotic catheter manipulation and image guidance into electrophysiological procedures. We collaborated very closely with Dr. Allan Skanes and the electrophysiology team at London Health Sciences Centre, and it became obvious that there was need for a device that would allow clinicians to control the forces at the tip of the catheter that is used for ablations. Being able to control the force on the catheters is potentially a very high impact development. Because of the collaborations and understanding of the procedures – what’s involved and the newest technologies in the clinic – Daniel developed a device that is able to control the forces, thereby improving the precision of the procedure. If we can take the device to clinical use, the anticipated benefit is that the number of patients coming back for repeat ablation procedures will be dramatically reduced. In this particular area, we have benefitted hugely from the collaborations with the electrophysiology group.
Why is it important to consider research impact beyond the bench?  
My philosophy has been that, even in basic science, we should be thinking about translational and commercial possibilities – whether you go after that yourself or collaborate with researchers who can help you achieve this goal. We need to make a clinical impact.
I’ve been involved a little bit more in the technology transfer aspects. When I was a grad student, if you mentioned the word ‘company’, you were a pariah. That was the late 80s, early 90s. Now, it’s the opposite, expectations are there that you will commercialize. Recently, the tech transfer office WORLDiscoveries® has been much more active in educating faculty about how and when to consider commercialization.
How do you view your role as a teacher and mentor?
Part of the reason I’ve ended up doing so many research projects is because I’ve been fairly open to letting students and trainees do what they’re passionate about. As long as it fits into my research theme, I’m open to anything that is worth pursuing.
In terms of training, my philosophy is to let them explore. That ends up being very beneficial to the trainees, if they have the spark and the innovation and the interest in developing something new. It’s about growing them as researchers.
You were a trainee at Robarts. What is it like working in the same place you completed your doctoral work?
I’m probably more attached to the Institute because of my history. The place has definitely grown in numbers and in types of activities, as well as the scope of what we’re trying to do.
You recently presented at Discover Robarts. Why is it important to involve the wider community in your work? What value do you think this brings?
I had a great time presenting at Discover Robarts and had fabulous questions from the audience. People were very engaged. Some were even making suggestions about our devices.
There are a lot of people in the community hungry to know more about Robarts and what we do. It’s important in building our reputation – the more community involvement, the more likely people are to recognize the importance of what we do and consider contributing financially to research.