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

 
 

Proxima Clinical Research has announced an office expansion — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Twitter

Houston's innovation ecosystem has had some big news this month, from new job titles for Houston innovators to expanding office space.

In this roundup of Houston startup and innovation news, a Houston organization expands its footprint in the TMC, Rice University opens applications for a cleantech accelerator, and more.

Organization expands footprint in Houston

Proxima CRO has announced its expansion within TMCi. Photo via Twitter

Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization headquartered in Houston, announced that it is expanding its office space in the Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory.

"Texas Medical Center is synonymous with innovation, and the TMC Innovation space has proven an ideal location for our CRO. It's an important part of our origin story and a big part of our success," says Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, in a news release.

The expansion will include around 7,500-square feet of additional office space.

"The resources found across TMC's campuses allow for companies such as Proxima Clinical Research to achieve clinical and business milestones that will continue to shape the future of life sciences both regionally and globally. We are excited for Proxima to expand their footprint at TMC Innovation Factory as they further services for their MedTech customers," says Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation, in the release.

$20M grant fuels hardtech program's expansion

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Activate.org

A hardtech-focused nonprofit officially announced its Houston expansion this week. Activate, which InnovationMap reported was setting up its fifth program here last month, received a $20M commitment by the National Science Foundation to fuel its entrance into the Bayou City.

“Houston’s diversity offers great promise in expanding access for the next generation of science entrepreneurs and as a center of innovation for advanced energy," says NSF SBIR/STTR program director Ben Schrag in a news release.

The organization was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

“We are delighted to be opening our newest Activate community in Houston,” says Activate Anywhere managing director Hannah Murnen, speaking at the annual Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Innovation Summit. “Houston is a city where innovation thrives, with an abundance of talent, capital, and infrastructure—the perfect setting for the Activate Fellowship.”

Activate is still looking its Houston’s first managing director is actively underway and will select fellows for Activate Houston in 2024.

TMC names new entrepreneur in residence

Zaffer Syed has assumed a new role at TMC. Photo via TMC.org

Houston health tech innovator has announced that he has joined the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory as entrepreneur in residence for medtech. Zaffer Syed assumed the new role this month, according to his LinkedIn, and he's been an adviser for the organization since 2017.

Syed has held a few leadership roles at Saranas Inc., a medical device company founded in Houston to detect internal bleeding following medical procedures. He now serves as adviser for the company.

"As CEO of Saranas, he led the recapitalization of the company that led to the FDA De Novo classification and commercial launch of a novel real-time internal bleed monitoring system for endovascular procedures," reads the TMC website. "Zaffer oversaw clinical development, regulatory affairs and strategic marketing at OrthoAccel Technologies, a private dental device startup focused on accelerating tooth movement in patients undergoing orthodontic treatment.

"Prior to working in startup ventures, Zaffer spent the first 13 years of his career in various operational roles at St. Jude Medical and Boston Scientific to support the development and commercialization of Class III implantable devices for cardiovascular and neuromodulation applications."

TMC is currently looking for an entrepreneur in residence for its TMCi Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics program.

Applications open for clean energy startup program

Calling all clean energy startups. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Clean Energy Accelerator, an energy transition accelerator housed at the Ion and run by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has opened applications for Class 3. The deadline to apply is April 14.

The accelerator, which helps early-stage ventures reach technical and commercial milestones through hybrid programming and mentorship, will host its Class 3 cohort from July 25 to Sept. 22.

“Accelerating the transition to a net-zero future is a key goal at Rice University. Through accelerating the commercial potential of our own research as well as supporting the further adoption of global technologies right here in Houston, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is proof of that commitment,” says Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice, in a news release. “The Rice Alliance has all the critical components early-stage energy ventures need for success: a corporate innovation network, energy investor network, access to mentors and a well-developed curriculum. This accelerator program is a unique opportunity for energy startups to successfully launch and build their ventures and get access to the Houston energy ecosystem.”

According to Rice, the 29 alumni companies from Class 1 and 2 have gone on to secure grants, partnerships, and investments, including more than $75 million in funding. Companies can apply here, learn more about the accelerator here or attend the virtual information session April 3 by registering here.

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