Fluid dynamics research at Mississippi State University aids development of children's artificial heart

Starkville 10 June 2004A Mississippi State University (MSU) scientist is playing a key role in a national research effort to develop an artificial heart small enough for use in children and infants. Mechanical engineer Greg Burgreen, an authority in computational fluid dynamics, is concentrating on the "complexities of blood flow" as part of a Jarvik Heart/University of Maryland project to design implantable ventricular assist devices for children.

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"You may have the most efficient heart pump in the world, but if it is damaging the blood, you have to start over", stated Greg Burgreen, an associate research professor at the SimCenter (simulation centre) of the university's ERC, formerly the Engineering Research Center. He explained that the latest Jarvik heart pumps used in adults are only the size of D-cell batteries, but still create blood-flow problems in children because of their smaller body size and limited blood volume.

"Our aim is to miniaturize an adult-size pump for use in a child or infant", Greg Burgreen stated. "However, at that size, the rotor or turbine inside the pump would have to turn at 24.000 RPM, just like a food blender. You want to make sure the blood is not being damaged." Despite the enormity of the challenge, Greg Burgreen said researchers hope to design a pump no larger than the size of an AA battery for children, and about half that size for infants. "But", Greg Burgreen cautioned, "there is a limit to what man can do through engineering to replicate what our Creator has done perfectly."

Reared near Huntsville, Alabama, and a 1981 East Limestone High School graduate, he came to MSU two years ago after eight years with a University of Pittsburgh medical research team. New York City-based Jarvik Heart Inc. recently received a $5 million contract from the National Institutes of Health to develop a heart pump for children. Heading up the five-year research project is its namesake, Dr. Robert Jarvik, who developed the well-known Jarvik 7 blood pump. Dr. Bartley Griffith of the University of Maryland, formerly chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, is project co-director.

Greg Burgreen, a former Griffith colleague at Pittsburgh, is participating in the project through a $100.000 subcontract, utilizing the computer simulation resources and high-quality Grid generation technology of Mississippi State's ERC SimCenter. The centre is directed by mechanical engineering professor David Marcum, who earlier collaborated with Greg Burgreen during his pump research at Pittsburgh. "I developed some of the computer simulation tools he was able to put to good use", stated David Marcum, who will provide similar technical assistance in this project.

Greg Burgreen received bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville before earning a doctorate in the discipline from Virginia's Old Dominion University in 1994. It was while at ODU that he became close friends with fellow student James C. Newman III, now an MSU associate professor of aerospace engineering who helped lure Greg Burgreen to Starkville.

"My primary interest is to optimally design fluid-contacting surfaces", stated Greg Burgreen, explaining that he formerly helped design airplane wings at NASA's Langley Research Center before turning his research attention to heart pumps. "At Pittsburgh, I spent eight years learning about the complexities of blood flow in a biomedical device. During that time, we literally went from a napkin sketch to a finished, implantable prototype."

A number of United States companies are developing various kinds of mechanical heart pumps, including at least five teams working on pumps for kids. Over the years, Greg Burgreen has consulted for several of them, including California-based Thoratec Inc. and its subsidiary, Nimbus Inc.; Vascor Inc. of Pittsburgh; MedQuest Inc. of Salt Lake City, Utah; and Cardianove Inc. of Montréal, Canada. All are major players in the design and development of rotary blood pumps.

Essentially, Greg Burgreen creates mathematical algorithms and applies computational fluid dynamics to blood-flow models, providing new computer software tools to help perfect smaller and more efficient artificial hearts. In the Jarvik Heart project, Bartley Griffith and his Maryland colleagues will pre-clinically test the paediatric pumps by implanting prototypes into test animals.

Greg Burgreen said he currently is developing a "new generation simulation software" that can be broadly applied to integrate design and analysis research across diverse disciplines such as computer-aided design, computational structural mechanics, turbulence modelling, heat transfer and multi-component fluid flow.

"We're distilling 10 years of trial and error, successes and failures, and drawing it together into a package we think will be revolutionary", he stated. "The MSU SimCenter has the critical mass of research expertise and facilities to pull it off. This is a unique place. I'm not aware of any other centre in the country that has this degree of experience and knowledge."


Leslie Versweyveld

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