Engineering Professor’s Research Will Help Babies Born with Defective Hearts
Zhenglun Wei’s Studies Are Supported by $968,000 in Grants
By Edwin L. Aguirre
Asst. Prof. Zhenglun “Alan” Wei of the Department of Biomedical Engineering is leading a team of researchers working to develop computer programs to help doctors treat newborns, infants and toddlers afflicted with congenital heart problems. The studies are supported by grants totaling $968,000 from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
The first of Wei’s three research projects, funded by a two-year, $154,000 AHA grant, focuses on newborns afflicted with one of the most complex and dangerous congenital heart problems, called single ventricle defect. This relatively rare heart defect affects about five out of every 100,000 live births, according to Boston Children’s Hospital.
“The technology we are developing could potentially help babies get better lifelong health and enjoy an improved quality of life,” says Wei, who is a faculty member of the UMass Center for Digital Health.
A normal heart has two main pumping chambers, or ventricles – the left ventricle that pumps oxygen-rich blood to the body, and the right ventricle that pumps oxygen-poor blood to the lungs, where oxygen is then added to the blood. However, a baby with single ventricle defect has only one pumping chamber, according to Wei.
In such cases, the blood that is pumped into the body does not contain enough oxygen to meet the body’s needs, which can cause the infant to become cyanotic (turn bluish in color), he says.
“This is a very grave condition. Babies with this defect need emergency treatment to save them from imminent death,” Wei says.
However, he says many of these babies do not live a full, healthy life after treatment, which often requires a series of open-heart, reconstructive surgeries.
“They experience lifelong challenges in coping with everyday activities such as exercising, as well as countless trips to the hospital and the constant threat of death due to complications,” he says.
According to Wei, doctors recently discovered that all of these problems are due to some bad blood motion in the baby’s body after treatment. Usually, blood flow is unidirectional (flowing in one direction) so that it can deliver oxygen and nutrients to organs. In bad blood motion, the flow can exhibit unexpected backflow (flow in reverse direction) or gets diverted, so that organs (like the lungs) do not receive the necessary nutrients, he says.
“The traditional method of visualizing the blood motion, however, is either very slow or harmful,” he says. “Therefore, our team is developing a very fast, smart computer program that would show us how blood moves in the baby’s body without hurting the baby.”
Wei says the program could help doctors find where the bad blood motion happens and test possible prevention measures prior to treatment.
“Hopefully, our program will significantly help improve the treatment outcomes and eliminate the family’s fear of losing their loved ones,” he says. “We plan to develop similar programs for other types of congenital heart defects in the future.”
Wei directs the university’s Artificial Intelligence and Modeling Lab for Cardiovascular Diseases at Perry Hall on North Campus. Assisting him in the lab research are biomedical engineering sophomores Carter Allen, Joshua Frechette and Nathania Santoso and junior Rachel Perry. Wei’s external collaborators include Dr. Mark A. Fogel of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Prof. Alessandro Veneziani of Emory University.
National Institutes of Health Research Grants
In his second research project, supported by an NHLBI grant worth $449,000, Wei and his team are using advanced computer simulation and experimental modeling to understand the effect of malformed heart valves or dysfunctional ventricles on single-ventricle toddlers.
Wei says following reconstructive surgery, called the Fontan procedure, the children should be able to live a good quality of life, including attending schools, conducting exercises, and so on. Sadly, many patients cannot do these due to their impaired heart valves or ventricles, he says.
“We will use our computer simulation and mock flow loop to develop new metrics that best predict the exercise performance and quality of life of patients, as well as inform doctors when and how to take care of the patients,” Wei says.
Wei’s third research project, funded with an NHLBI grant of $365,000, focuses on congestive heart failure, in which the heart could not pump blood as well as it should, and blood gets backed up in the blood vessels.
“Heart failure is a serious condition that affects up to 14,000 children in the U.S. each year,” he says. “While a heart transplant is the preferred treatment, there is a high mortality rate for those waiting for a compatible donor heart to become available.”
While there are mechanical circulatory support devices available that can assist in the cardiovascular function of children, options for newborns and infants are limited due to their small size, he says.
Wei and his team are helping to test the prototype of the NeoMate system, a left-ventricular assist device manufactured by Florida-based company Inspired Therapeutics. This external miniature pump is designed to provide up to 30 days of support for newborns and infants with heart failure.
“Our goal is to help complete the development of the NeoMate system and pump through computational analysis and test the system in static and dynamic mock flow loops to evaluate its performance,” he says.
A Career in Cardiovascular Research
In addition to teaching at UMass Lowell, Wei is an adjunct assistant professor at the Heart and Vascular Institute of the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He is also the deputy editor-in-chief of Cardiovascular Engineering and Technology, the newest journal of the Biomedical Engineering Society.
Wei says he first became interested in this field during his Ph.D. training in mechanical engineering, when he developed a computational method to simulate the flow dynamics of fluids around objects that move drastically, like birds and fish.
“Upon graduation, I ultimately chose to focus on cardiovascular modeling because it directly impacts people’s lives,” he says. “Over the past few years, I have collaborated with doctors in the U.S. and from other countries to help save patients, particularly infants and children. This has been a fulfilling journey that has kept me passionate about cardiovascular research.”