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Engineering Methods to Combat Congenital Heart Disease in Children

Congenital heart defects account for five times more deaths annually than all childhood cancers combined. Alison Marsden, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Jacobs School, has developed a unique set of computer modeling tools that are expected to enhance pediatric surgeons' ability to perform critical heart surgery on children. Marsden's work focuses on designing and using simulation tools to provide a way of testing new surgery designs on the computer before trying them on patients, much like, for example, engineers use computer codes to test new designs for airplanes or automobiles.

Certain severe forms of congenital heart defects leave a patient with only one functional heart pumping chamber. These "single ventricle" defects are uniformly fatal if left untreated, and require a patient to undergo multiple heart surgeries, ending with a Fontan procedure.

In the Fontan surgery, the veins returning blood to the heart from the body are directly connected to the arteries that send deoxygenated blood to the lungs, forming a modified t-shaped junction. This bypasses the heart on the one side so that the resulting circulation puts the single pumping chamber to optimal use. Using models derived from MRI image data, Marsden has come up with a way to optimize a Y-Graft model for the Fontan procedure which can help pediatric surgeons determine whether this procedure will benefit a patient.

Alison Marsden (left), a UC San Diego mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, has developed breakthrough simulation tools to assist pediatric heart surgeons, such as Dr. Jeff Feinstein (right) of Stanford University.
Alison Marsden (left), a UC San Diego mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, has developed breakthroughsimulation tools to assist pediatric heart surgeons, such as Dr. Jeff Feinstein (right) of Stanford University.

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