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UTSA Lab Developing New Treatment For Aneurysms

Wendy Rigby
Texas Public Radio
Aneurysm patient Carlos Hernandez and his granddaughter Crysty at the U.T. Health Science Center

A professor with the University of Texas at San Antonio is trying to come up with a new way to treat a deadly health problem: abdominal aortic aneurysms. His work involves an investigational method to stop the aneurysm from growing so that it doesn’t burst.

Abdominal aortic aneurysms or “triple As” as they’re called affect 1 in 250 people over the age of 55. If the ballooned artery ruptures, 8 out of 10 patients die.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a bulging artery. The vial on the right contains the chemical compound PPG being tested in this UTSA lab.

"People that have an aneurysm don’t know that they have one," explained UTSA Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Ender Finol, Ph.D. "There are no symptoms associated with having an aneurysm, until the aneurysm is about to rupture."

In the Vascular Biomechanics and Biofluids Lab, Finol and his team use a 3D printer to make models of actual patients’ triple As from data collected on scans. Then, they create plastic models and pump a blood-mimicking fluid through different life-like molds to test pressures and stresses.

"We have bench top models," said graduate student Miru Thirugnanasambandam. "We’re very excited about it."

The team is testing the application of a chemical compound called pentagalloyl glucose or PGG. It binds to proteins in the aorta and stabilizes the artery by keeping the aneurysm from growing.

"The idea is that once the compound is applied, the aneurysm is frozen in the sense that it’s not going to grow anymore," Finol stated. "We’re trying to prevent, essentially, the rupture of the aneurysm altogether, not just prevent it from growing."

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Graduate student Miru Thirugnanasambandam, Ender Finol, Ph.D. and graduate student Tejas Canchi work in the Vascular Biomechanics and Biofluids Lab at UTSA.

That would have been a welcome approach for 81-year-old Carlos Hernandez of San Antonio. Strange pressures and pain sent him in search of a diagnosis.

"Whenever I leaned forward or put any pressure on my stomach, I would feel some type of pain and a strong pulse," Hernandez told TPR in Spanish. "Whenever I would go from one side to the other, forward, I would feel it."

In a cardiac catheterization lab at University Hospital, U.T. Health Science Center vascular surgeon Georges Haidar, MD, performed the standard procedure on Hernandez. He placed what’s called an Endograft, basically inserting a straw inside the ballooning artery to control the blood flow and avert a rupture.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Special blood mimicking fluid pumps through aneurysm models to recreate pressure and stress.

Still, Hernandez had recovery time. "I had orders not to lift anything. I stayed at home. People took care of me," he said.

The data UTSA is collecting is promising. Finol recently won a $750,000 grant from the American Heart Association to continue his research. Work with PPG in mice has been encouraging. One of the challenges is to find a delivery system for the chemical therapy, perhaps nano particles or tiny capsules delivered directly to the diseased blood vessel.

Finol says it will take interdisciplinary studies involving bioengineers and physicians to find answers. "I like the research because it provides an opportunity for an engineer to make a contribution in what is essentially a medical problem," Finol said.

Defusing more of these triple AAAs, basically medical time bombs, could someday save lives.