Dr. Scott Halbreiner is a cardiac surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital, but he could also be described as an inventor at heart.

“For years, I kept a notebook of ideas that would arise from my experiences as a surgeon,” Halbreiner said. “Most of these ideas would be device-related based on my biomedical engineering background, and this particular one was escalated during my time at the Johns Hopkins BME master’s program three years ago.”

The idea he’s referring to is a new heart monitoring device designed to help cardiac patients after open heart surgery. Halbreiner is principal investigator of the project and joins other Allegheny Health Network surgeons and biomedical engineers from Carnegie Mellon University on the project.

The National Institutles of Health recently awarded the AGH/CMU team a “Trailblazer” grant for $400,000. The grants are awarded for “high-risk, high-impact” research in the exploration and development of new engineering technologies within the life sciences field.

Halbreiner has joined Christopher J. Bettinger, Ph.D., professor of material sciences and biomedical engineering at CMU, on the three-year project.

Following open heart surgery, clinicians typically thread a catheter within the pulmonary artery directly through a patient’s heart that monitors heart function and blood flow. As many as 20% of patients who undergo open heart surgery may experience postoperative complications, underscoring the need to quickly identify problems when they emerge. While the pulmonary artery catheter helps with fast assessment and treatment, this invasive method can pose big risks such as fatal arrhythmia, perforation of blood vessels, bleeding into the airway, entanglement and clotting since the heart is in a vulnerable state post-surgery.

“The current catheter that is used has been around for decades and has really advanced our understanding and management of the cardiac surgical patient,” Halbreiner said. “However, you’ll often hear about cardiac surgeons who’ve experienced challenges associated with these catheters ranging from punctures in the heart or great vessels to causation of irregular and dangerous heart rhythms due to irritation within the heart’s chambers.”

Halbreiner said he thought there had to be a better way to help monitor patients after surgery. Because of the risks involving the catheter and the risk of infection, cardiac surgeons try to remove it as soon as possible.

“But with this immediacy, there’s a missed opportunity to collect long-term information that would benefit future research and overall patient care,” Halbreiner said. “Combining my idea of a sensor that could detect the same measurements, but not cause the same issues, sparked my interest to pursue the idea further. Then I met Dr. Bettinger at Carnegie Mellon, an expert in the field of biomedical sensors, and he was able to quickly design a pro-type that could achieve my vision.”

Together, the team hopes to create an innovative medical device that serves as a sensor to accurately read measurements of the heart and detect how well it is performing after cardiac surgery.

“The ultimate goal is to improve the understanding of patient recovery after cardiac surgery with a device that is highly effective and markedly safe when compared to current catheters in the field,” Halbreiner said.

The goal is to create a device that is minimally invasive and will match or improve the efficacy of the conventional technology and procedure.

“This is initially targeted toward the postoperative cardiac surgical patient, and in particular, patients who have a sicker heart and need closer monitoring for complications,” Halbreiner said. “Specific examples would include patients receiving a heart transplant or a mechanical heart.”

The project is slated for three years and is nearing the end of its first phase which includes design of the sensor and calibration,” Halbreiner said.

“Currently, we’re determining the best combination of biomaterials to provide the most durable device,” he added. “We want to try to get this first part as close to our initial design as possible before moving to the next phase of testing the device in a lab through an ex-vivo simulation.”

Halbreiner said the project’s progress has been outstanding considering its high-risk nature and that the grant funding has really helped to give it momentum.

“As we look ahead, we’re on track to hit our targets within the next two years and we plan to pursue further funding that will allow us to scale our testing and take the necessary steps to advance this toward industry and regulatory approval,” he said.

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