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Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Dalin Tang, professor of computational mathematics and biomedical engineering, has developed computer models that will help combat heart disease. The models can help doctors make predictions about blood flow, stress on arteries, and the growth of plaque--all key factors in determining how close a patient's arteries are to rupturing.

More than 61 million Americans--better than one in five--have some sort of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. Dalin Tang, professor of computational mathematics and biomedical engineering in WPI's Mathematical Sciences Department, hopes his computer models of stenotic arteries (arteries abnormally narrowed by plaque buildup) will help reduce the death toll from heart disease.

Tang's goal is to help physicians determine how close their patients' stenotic arteries are to rupturing. With this data, doctors may be able to head off strokes and heart attacks.

Tang says there are a number of factors that complicate this research. The development of arterial diseases is a complex process; accurate data from real patients is hard to get; and the research crosses many disciplines. Ultrasound and MRI scans, commonly used to detect clogged arteries, provide some information, but are unable to measure the amount of stress being experienced by an artery. To provide this vital information, Tang is working with radiologists to simulate how arteries expand and contract and to calculate the distribution of stress inside artery plaques. This information can be used to predict whether a plaque is likely to rupture.

"Much of our research in this area remains theoretical," says Tang. "But we are getting closer to being able to provide the medical community with clinical information that they can use in their diagnoses."

Through his computational modeling and experimental investigations, Tang can make predictions about blood flow, the stress and strain on arteries, and the formation and growth of plaque.

Over time, Tang hopes to augment his models with physiologically relevant data to produce a robust tool that helps physicians make critical decisions about treatment. "By measuring the stress of an artery," he explains, "doctors will recognize that if the stress passes a certain point they will need to perform preventative surgery or prescribe appropriate medications. The fact that lives may be saved with this knowledge is very rewarding."

Tang has been collaborating with researchers from Georgia Tech, Harvard Medical School, Mass General, Northwestern University and Washington University Medical School, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Whitaker Foundation. He has also created models for human atherosclerotic plaques based on MRI data, and for asymmetric stenosis, vein graft, stents, plaque rupture and hyperplasia growth.

--Nancy Langmeyer

In Fig.1, an MRI image of a human carotid artery shows danger signs: a fibrous cap, calcifications and lipid pool. Fig. 2 plots the contours--including location and magnitude--of stress to the artery wall.
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