heart of gold

Houston innovation team wins global award for painless heart technology

A medical device coming out of the Texas Heart Institute has been recognized for its innovation. Photo via THI

Houston's Texas Heart Institute's pain-free defibrillation technology was named the top future medical product design worldwide last month as part of the annual Create the Future Design contest.

The tiny technology aims to change the way cardiac arrhythmias are managed and remove the often traumatizing pain associated with their treatment. Developed by THI's Electrophysiology Clinical Research & Innovations team in conjunction with scientists at Rice University and UCLA, the technology allows doctors to place up to 12 tiny nodes around the heart to pace and defibrillate the heart without using a shock.

The technology will be most useful for atrial fibrillation and ventricular fibrillation, which can lead to sudden death, stroke, and congestive heart failure, according to Dr. Mehdi Razavi, the head investigator on this project and leader of the THI team. Razavi says winning the award "speaks to the need" of a new solution in the field as the shocks associated with traditional implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, or ICDs, can cause severe PTSD among patients.

"It's extremely painful. It's like someone takes a two by four and just pounds you from the inside in the chest, or a horse kicking you in the chest," Razavi says. He went on to add: "I have actually one patient who was a Vietnam veteran. He said nothing that he faced in battle was as disconcerting—not just because of the pain, but the fact that you don't know when the pain is when the shock is about to happen. That anxiety is just overwhelming."

Instead of shocking the patient's heart in a central location, the nodes spread energy needed to pace the heart at the correct rate throughout the muscle based on their location. This dilutes the feeling of a sudden jolt, and Razavi says, defibrillation using his technology could go unnoticed in patients.

In addition to this game-changing possibility, the new technology is physically safer in many ways, too. The miniaturized battery-less pacing system is free of traditional wires that send electrical pulses to the heart, known as leads. These leads can dislodge and fracture within the body and can cause infection.

The technology's wireless and miniature nature also allows doctors to better access regions of the heart that currently are difficult to reach with bulkier ICDs. Each node can be individually programmed and can stimulate different regions of the heart in different ways, as well.

A cross disciplinary team developed the device. Aydin Babakhani, an associate professor in physical and wave electronics at UCLA first developed the nodes to stimulate electricity for non-medical purposes. Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Director of the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative, first introduced Razavi to Babakhani, and the trio worked together to bring the technology to the medical arena, along with about 15 to 20 other medical professionals and students.

The team at Rice is continuing to develop the hardware for clinical use. And studies on the use of defibrillation through these nodes across the heart are being conducted out to the Texas Heart Institute's research lab. Razavi and his team are currently conducting preclinical studies on the new form of treatment and aims to roll it out for clinical use in the next three to five years.

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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