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UWI inventors seek investors

Breakthrough cardiac surgery simulator has great commercial potential

BY COREY ROBINSON Sunday Observer staff reporter robinsonc@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, January 29, 2012    

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GASPS of amazement emanated from the group of onlookers gathered inside the demonstration tent on the lawns of the Caribbean's premier tertiary institution last week as researchers switched on what could be the world's first cardiac surgery simulator.

The machine with the pulsating pig's heart was the highlight of the University of the West Indies' (UWI) 13th annual Research Days, held last Thursday and Friday. It could also be the start of great things for cardiac surgeon Dr Paul Ramphal and  computer specialist Dr Daniel Coore, who invented the machine, called the UWI Cardiac Surgery Similator.

According to the two, the instrument — a combination of mechanics, computerised electronics, artificial blood, and dead animal flesh — will not only shorten the time spent on training young local surgeons, but will also make them more competitive on the international scene.

"It is difficult to spend time during the (real life) operations taking junior surgeons through the procedure. Time is of the essence in cardiac surgery," said Ramphal, who said he was tasked with the challenge of training three new cardiac surgeons in 2001.


"So the inspiration really, was how do I get my new trainees to a level so that when they reach overseas to complete their training in a high-volume centre like the UK, Canada, or the US, they will not be behind, and preferably in a more advanced position than the other trainees who were at those centres?" he said.

The similator, which reanimates a pig's heart — medically, the closest in structure to a human heart — also pumps artifical blood through the organ and is programmed to duplicate real-life scenarios that a trainee surgeon would have to deal with on the operating table during open-heart surgery. Computer leads hooked up to the heart can make it beat in different rhythms, and also track artificial vital signs on an attached monitor.

It's considered a remarkable achievement, with nearly limitless potential if the simulator can be duplicated and sold in the specialised market for cardiac equipment.

This is why the success of the UWI Research Days notwithstanding, its inventors are looking for investors to help them duplicate their creation.

"Whenever we show it to the professionals in the field or the industry people who are involved with the equipment in cardiac surgery, they all want one," he said. They want to know where to buy one, but we just don't have the infrastructure here to be the production centre," said Dr Ramphal.

"We are not a factory. We need a commercial operation to do that," interjected Dr Coore. "So we are in the stage where we are looking for commercial entities to take it on, produce it and to sell it," he said.

The two refused to say what was the monetary value of the machine, claiming "that might be confidential to whoever commercialises it", and further declined to answer queries about how much money they would need to replicate it commercially.

They did, however, note that conceptualising and building the simulator was no easy task.

"There is the computerised portion, the mechanical portion and there is also the flesh; the heart itself. That (pig's heart) has to be specially prepared. The production of that has to be worked out commercially," Dr Ramphal noted.

His 'eureka!' moment came during a walk along the Hope River in Gordon Town, St Catherine, several years ago.

During his stroll, he stumbled upon a rock which was the same size of the human heart cavity. The idea struck him, he said: "If I take this rock and put it in plaster, I can make a mould of the chest cavity where the heart usually sits."

The surgeon did exactly that, signalling the beginning of his mission to create a mechanical support system that would mimic a live human heart during surgery.

He started soliciting pigs' hearts from local butchers. These, he said, he connected to simple mechanical systems which would enable him to control the movement of the organ.

But Dr Ramphal never stopped there.

"I spent many hours in the laboratory figuring out how to reanimate this heart. We had succeeded in making the heart look alive again with a mechanical system that I devised. I then approached the computer science department, where I asked Dr Coore 'could we computerise this mechanical device so that we can control the heart in more precise ways'?" he said, adding that Coore immediately agreed to help.

By 2004, the two had a working prototype, which was demonstrated last week on the Mona campus.

"In the end, it was a flight simulator for heart surgery," said Ramphal as he described the unusual piece of equipment.

The brief demonstration of the machine peaked the interest of Education Minister Ronald Thwaites, medical interests, school authorities; and a mixture of university, high, and primary school students who attended the event. All sat transfixed by the simulated 'open heart' surgery that took place behind the transparent plastic barrier arranged to create a makeshift operating room.

The university's 2012 Research Days were held last Thursday and Friday under the theme 'Promoting Health and Wellness: The UWI Mona's Innovative Approach'.

The event featured 120 current research projects by staff and students at the institution.

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