Yaxin Wang leads the IDEA Lab at the Texas Heart Institute. Photo via texasheart.org

In 1969, Dr. Denton A. Cooley implanted the first total artificial heart in a living patient. Most Houstonians know Cooley’s name, but fewer can name his colleague, Dr. Domingo Liotta, who created the device. Liotta died last year at the age of 97, but his work continues at the Texas Heart Institute.

Meet Yaxin Wang, PhD. The research engineer leads the IDEA Lab at THI. IDEA stands for Innovative Device & Engineering Applications, an apt description of what Wang and her colleagues do. She’s currently focused intensely on projects that could radically change transplantation for patients in need of an artificial heart or new, healthy lungs.

Specifically, Wang is helping to develop a pediatric left ventricular assist device (NeoVAD) to mechanically pump that part of the heart in infants and small children born with heart defects.

“There aren’t a lot of options for very small kids,” explains Wang. “That’s why we’re working on an implantable LVAD for very young kids.”

In fact, as many as 14,000 children with congenital heart disease are hospitalized each year waiting for a new heart, but only around 500 pediatric transplants actually take place.

Essentially, once patients reach their teens, their chest cavities are large enough for an adult donor heart. But smaller children means smaller rib cages and fewer available hearts. For children born with heart disease, Wang’s LVAD could be a lifesaver. Because she has crafted minimally invasive devices that were developed for long-term use, patients could live far longer than before.

The project, funded by a $2.8 million NIH grant, has a big name attached. Dr. O.H. Frazier is a THI legend who claims to have performed 900 LVAD implantations, not to mention some 1,200 heart transplants. In April, the team published their initial findings regarding the success of and improvements in making rotary LVADs over the last half-century.

A different team, also led by Frazier and Wang, received a pair of grants this summer. That includes $2.8 million from the NIH and a total of $7.8 million from a DoD focused program and a THI sub-award. Their work will center on a novel centrifugal left-ventricular assist device intended for end-stage heart failure patients, a potentially safer alternative to a heart transplant.

But Wang isn’t solely focused on the heart. Working with Dr. Gabriel Loor, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Baylor College of Medicine, Wang is also responsible for a method of preserving the lungs for a longer stretch of time, which would allow for further transport, and in the more distant future, potential genetic modification before transplantation. Using animal models for the moment, “they can survive for several hours without any issues,” says Wang.

The pioneering researcher is well on her way to making a name for herself at the Texas Heart Institute and beyond. And soon, she’ll be saving countless lives.

The Texas Heart Institute recently received its largest charitable donation in its history. Photo courtesy of THI

Massive $32M gift from former patient, new UH deal pump big changes into Houston organization

all heart

Leadership at The Texas Heart Institute has two major things to celebrate. First, it just received a $32 million donation from a patient — the largest charitable donation in its history.

Shortly after that news came out, the institute announced a new partnership with the University of Houston Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine that allows those UH medical students to join a clinical rotation at The Texas Heart Institute. The alliance means valuable insights and experience with both inpatient and outpatient cardiology for UH's future doctors.

"Students will have the chance to develop their skills in the diagnosis and management of cardiovascular conditions and will be taught by outstanding clinical educators,” said Dr. Joseph G. Rogers, president and CEO of The Texas Heart Institute and heart failure specialist at The Texas Heart Institute Center for Cardiovascular Care, in a press release announcing the news.

A game-changing gift that's all heart

As for that mammoth gift, the $32 million donation comes from Dr. Frederick M. Weissman, a neurologist from New York who was a patient at the Institute 40 years ago. Fittingly, huis gift will be used to support cardiovascular research.

This isn't Weissman's first gift to the institution. That came following his experience there in the mid-1980s, when he was treated by world-renowned cardiac surgeon Dr. Denton A. Cooley.

In November of 1986, Weissman wrote a check for $5,000; another followed the next month, with a note that read, in part, “my conscience compels me to make another contribution to The Texas Heart Institute. I don’t think I could ever repay you for what you and your staff have done for me.” Weissman and Cooley would go on to be friends throughout their lives.

When Dr. Weissman died in 2005, he left The Texas Heart Institute $500,000. The organization recently received the residual of his estate — valued at more than $32 million.

“Those of us who were fortunate enough to work with and be trained by Dr. Cooley know he was much more than just an incredibly gifted surgeon," renowned transplant surgeon and Co-director of THI’s Center for Preclinical Surgical & Interventional Research, Dr. O.H. “Bud” Frazier, said in press materials announcing the donation. "He established lifelong relationships with his patients and encouraged all of us to do the same. Dr. Weissman’s extraordinary generosity reflects the impact Dr. Cooley still has on the Institute he founded.”

A big leap for THI and the Coogs

Looking ahead, this game-changing gift and new affiliation with UH promises big things for students, doctors, researchers, and patients.

Medical students in rotation at The Texas Heart Institute will be exposed to progressive clinical care, allowing them to gain a deep understanding of the etiology, pathophysiology and management of cardiovascular disease from prevention to the most contemporary treatments available today. This level of hands-on experience is invaluable for future physicians, and will certainly contribute to the advancement of cardiovascular medicine.

"We are honored to launch this new affiliation with Fertitta Family College of Medicine,” said Dr. Jorge Escobar, director of undergraduate medical education at The Texas Heart Institute. "With new advances in diagnostic imaging, bedside testing, and clinical trials coupled with the complex care we provide to our patients, the rotation will be an impactful experience for the students."

Pumping with growth

Meanwhile, THI recently established The Texas Heart Institute Research Innovation Fund to propel the next generation of cardiovascular research by sparking discovery, supporting innovation, and recognizing excellence in high-risk, high-reward scientific exploration.

To that end, $5 million of the Weissman bequest has been designated to match philanthropic commitments of $10,000 or greater made to THI’s Research Innovation Fund and its priority initiatives in 2023, allowing donors the opportunity to double the impact of their research investment.

Founded in 1962, THI performed the first successful heart transplant and total artificial heart implant in the United States. It has gone on to become one of the world's leading institutions for cardiovascular treatment and research.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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$1M donation to Rice establishes pioneering neuro-policy center in Houston

brainy support

A big donation to Rice University will soon help researchers better understand the workings of the human brain.

Harry Yan and Weiman Gao have bestowed $1 million on the Baker Institute of Public Policy to establish the interdisciplinary Neuro-Policy Program.

Neuro-policy is a newer field that explores how brain health and function can help to fuel economic growth.

“The Neuro-Policy Program is at the forefront of pioneering data analysis, empirical research and policy application,” says Harris Eyre, the lead for the program, as well as a senior fellow in brain health at the Baker Institute, in a news release. “Investing in evidence-based strategies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment can reduce brain and mental health disparities, optimize cognitive development and performance and foster innovation to build more resilient communities.”

Eyre describes the collective value of the human brain as “brain capital.” That’s because brains that are suffering from any number of neurodegenerative or mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease) have actually taken a toll on the U.S. economy, Eyre explains.

The Neuro-Policy Program seeks to improve brain performance, and consequently enhance economic growth, national security, and our overall standing as a nation of healthy brains. The program’s primary projects include establishing a task force to advise Texas “brain and mind” legislative efforts as well as a Texas Brain Capital Dashboard, collaborating on Texas Forward (Texas Brain Health Plan) with the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, thereby working toward U.S. brain capital policy and investment advances. These projects are expected to yield deliverables as early as 2026.

“The Neuro-Policy Program aims to leverage the university’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center and the institute’s strong connections to state and federal policymakers. This is an important yet underrepresented area of research that Houston is poised to lead,” says David Satterfield, the director of the Baker Institute.

Yan and Gao said in a press release that they were inspired to gift the grant funds to Eyre and his research after attending a March 28 Baker Institute event on brain health that featured U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

"We are honored to support Dr. Harris Eyre and the Neuro-Policy program he leads. Dr. Eyre’s work has greatly impressed us, highlighting the critical importance of brain health in our society today,” say Yan and Gao. “We hope our contribution can inspire further support and advocacy in the field, helping individuals lead healthier lives through a comprehensive approach to prevention.”

Houston HR software startup rolls out platform at local hospital system

tapping into tech

More than 14,000 nurses at one of the largest nonprofit health care providers in Texas have access to a new skills and competency management software.

Kahuna Workforce Solutions has officially deployed its platform at Memorial Hermann Health System, consisting of 17 hospitals and more than 250 care delivery sites. The platform will streamline onboarding processes and increase transparency and accessibility for staff.

“Kahuna will enhance our clinical competency experience and fully aligns with our nursing strategy to optimize our processes, prioritize innovation and safety, and excel as a top provider of care and clinical advancement for clinicians,” Bryan Sisk, senior vice president and chief nursing executive for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

“Memorial Hermann is committed to the Houston community and helping to develop the next generation of nurses,” Sisk continues. “The Kahuna platform will help improve the transparency, autonomy and efficiency of our competency management and development processes for our nurses to better support them in their roles, while also ensuring we provide high-quality care for our patients.”

The rollout comes six months after the software-as-a-service company raised a $21 million series B round of funding.

“We are thrilled to work with Memorial Hermann as they enrich all aspects of their clinical competency management practices with Kahuna’s skills management software,” adds Jai Shah, CEO of Kahuna Workforce Solutions. “This collaboration unites two Houston-based organizations and demonstrates a joint commitment to enhancing the standard of health care through digitized competency management in our Houston community and far beyond.”