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 James Hury of TRISH, Serafina Lalany of HX, and Andrew Ramirez of Village Insights. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from space health to virtual collaboration — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

James Hury, deputy director and chief innovation officer of TRISH

James Hury joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the role of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of TRISH

Only about 500 humans have made it to space, and that number is getting bigger thanks to commercial space travel.

"If you look at all the people who have gone into space, they've mostly been employees of nations — astronauts from different governments," says James Hury of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're going to start to get people from all different ages and backgrounds."

Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer for Houston-based TRISH, and he's focused on identifying space tech and research ahead of the market that has the potential to impact human health in space. From devices that allow astronauts to perform remote health care on themselves to addressing behavioral health challenges, TRISH is supporting the future of space health. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

HX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston's nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of the local innovation ecosystem has named its new leader.

Serafina Lalany has been named Houston Exponential's executive director. She has been serving in the position as interim since July when Harvin Moore stepped down. Prior to that, she served as vice president of operations and chief of staff at HX.

"I'm proud to be leading an organization that is focused on elevating Houston's startup strengths on a global scale while helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," Lalany says in a news release. "My team and I will be building upon the great deal of momentum that has already been established in this effort, and I look forward to collaborating closely with members of our community and convening board in this next chapter of HX." Click here to read more.

Andrew Ramirez, CEO of Village Insights

Andrew Ramirez originally worked on a similar project 10 years ago. Photo via LinkedIn

Innovation thrives on collisions, but how do innovators connect without face-to-face connection? Andrew Ramirez and Mike Francis set out to design a virtual village to promote collisions and innovation, and their platform is arriving at an apt time.

"The world has changed," Ramirez says. "I feel like people are trying to find the right balance of the physical but also the productivity gain from being able to do things digitally."

Ramirez leads Village Insights as CEO and the new platform is expected to formally launch it's Open World platform next month. Click here to read more.

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