Why Giving Matters

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

March 3, 2015

Thanks in part to a McGill financial award, engineering student Toufic Azar is working to bring his life-saving medical product to market

Almost one million Canadians– more than two per cent of the population – suffer from mitral regurgitation, a dangerous condition that causes blood to leak from the valves that connect two chambers of the heart. While the problem is treatable by way of surgery, more than half of these patients are afflicted with risk factors that render the procedure too risky to undertake.

Toufic Azar, BEng’07, a PhD candidate in McGill’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, thinks there might be a better way. And thanks in part to a William and Rhea Seath Award in Engineering Innovation, established through a $2-million endowed gift from William Seath, BEng’52, to encourage research and product development, Azar is putting his idea into action.

Together with Renzo Cecere, BSc’86, MDCM’90, an associate professor of surgery in the Faculty of Medicine, he is developing a device that may diminish the need for such dicey surgical procedures by mimicking the outcome of open-heart surgery. Their invention — conceived with the help of Rosaire Mongrain, Jorge Angeles and Jozsef Kovecses from the Department of Mechanical Engineering —  was designed be folded and placed in the tip of a catheter before being inserted into a patient’s heart merely by piercing through the skin above it.

“The heart is not stopped, and there are no incisions in the chest,” says Azar. “And unlike with surgery, where patients are discharged weeks after the fact, with this kind of approach, they can leave in a matter of days.”

The invention’s development dates to the end of Azar’s time as a Master’s student. Angeles put him in touch with Cecere, who had sought his colleague’s help in designing a device that would mimic the outcome of surgery on the mitral valve. Azar was instantly sold on the idea.

“Since then, the concept has evolved many, many times,” Azar says.

In the past two years, the team has submitted three patents, and the first was accepted this past March. The device, meanwhile, has seen three iterations, the first two of which were handheld. The most recent, a catheter-based version, is much smaller and more nimble, Azar explains. Will it be able to negotiate the sharp turns required to reach the mitral valve as the heart beats? That will take time – and, more importantly, very, very intensive testing – to see.

The device would not have made it this far without the help of a William and Rhea Seath Award in Engineering Innovation, which Azar received in 2012.

“Without the award, the effort would be dead right now,” Azar says. “I would have stopped at the handheld device, finished my PhD and tried to raise money to fund it. But I don’t think it would have worked, because one of the main things investors want to see is a functioning prototype of the end product.”

Azar’s next step will be to undertake short-term and long-term testing test. Then, he says, larger companies interested in bringing the product to market – a process he estimates will take six years in North America – will likely materialize.

For now, though, Azar is focused on proving the viability of the invention. As statistics show, the need for it is impossible to ignore.

“Well over half the population goes untreated for mitral valve regurgitation because they’re too sick for an open-heart procedure,” he says. “After its safety and efficacy are proven, this device could have a very real, very direct impact on the lives of patients around the world.”