matters of the heart

Houston cardiac surgeon outpaces much of the country in game-changing robotics

Dr. Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, is one of around 50 surgeons in the country considered experts of this new surgery robotics tool. Photo courtesy of Baylor St. Luke's

Dr. Kenneth Liao is pioneering a less invasive form of heart surgery at a time when distanced medicine has become more important than ever with the help of six team members and one robot.

As the chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, Liao has performed 116 robotic cardiac surgeries since coming on board in 2019 (as of press time). With Liao at the helm, Baylor St. Luke's has become a top cardiac robotics program in the country and is the only hospital in Houston to practice this highly-specialized form of surgery.

Liao's four-armed robot friend is known as the da Vinci robotic system and was first designed to assist in battlefield procedures. Now on its fourth generation, the robot allows surgeons like Liao to treat heart diseases and conditions that typically would require open heart surgery through a one-to-two inch incision near the ribs. In many surgeries, it also allows surgeons to keep a patient's heart beating, lowering the risk of stroke.

"It's a totally game changing component to conventional surgery," Liao says, who's one of about 50 surgeons in the country with his level of command over the tool.

Once inside, the da Vinci robot uses tiny instruments to perform surgical practices from suturing to cutting to tying a knot all within the rigid chest cage, which in a typical open heart surgery would have to be broken to perform such tasks.

The surgeon, who's seated about 10 feet away from the patient, controls the tools through a joystick connected to a computer console that shows an enhanced 3D view of the patient's chest. Liao says the screen provides a better visual of the heart than if he was seeing it with his own eyes, as it magnifies the field of surgery tenfold. This method also gives surgeons a better view of areas of the heart that they cannot easily see from above during traditional procedures.

The da Vinci can be used for bypass, grafting, pacemaker, and valve repair surgeries, and it has been proven to result in less blood loss and a faster, less painful recovery. Similar technology has also been adopted for prostate and gynecological surgeries. "It gives you the advantage of minimizing the trauma," Liao says.

And though the da Vinci was developed years before the pandemic, it puts patients at a lower risk of exposure to any outside contaminants, Liao adds, as the robot alone is interfacing with the patient through a small port, compared to doctors, nurses, and assistants hovering over an open chest cavity.

"Technology will theoretically reduce a patient's exposure to COVID in the operation room," he says. "I think that's common sense."

Liao was an early adopter of robotics, when the technology was much less user friendly. He performed the first robotic heart surgery in the state of Minnesota in 2003 and has worked with the developers of the da Vinci ever since to help improve the product after many other surgeons dismissed it.

He says today there is a renewed interest in the highly technical process and he believes it will become an emphasis for younger surgeons.

"This generation of surgeons are young and they are very indebted to computer technology and games. For them looking at screens and controlling the hand joystick control is much more familiar than for the older generation that was trained 20 years ago." he says.

The incredible technology helps, too. "A lot of times, as surgeons, we train in the old way. It's very difficult to change the systems," he says. "You need a major technology revolution to change the teaching and training."

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

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