TINY PROPELLER, BIG IMPACT
An emergency heart pump, a device no larger than a AA battery and designed to help a failing heart pump blood, could be more efficient thanks to a new patented design created by a St. Helens man.
Steve Topaz recently received approval for a U.S. patent for a design he created and tested in St. Helens that can be used in medical devices.
Topaz, who has spent most of his life in the medical field experimenting with advancements in medical technologies, began working on the design nearly a decade ago. Around 2009 he was working via a partnership with the University of Kentucky and had received grant funding from the National Institutes of Health to improve the design of emergency heart pumps. He was primarily focused on one component of the pumps — the small, internal propeller.
During heart emergencies, medical professionals often use a ventricular assist device to help stabilize the organ. One common brand is the Impella, created by Abiomed, which is a tiny pump roughly the size of a AA battery inserted through the femoral artery, and then into the heart.
A tiny propeller inside the device helps move blood through it and into the body.
The propeller's movement can cause problems, however. When liquid, like blood or water, enters a propeller, the edges of the propeller rip into molecules and cause cavitation, or the creation of bubbles in a liquid.
For a boat propeller, this creates a white, foamy trail, or rooster tail, behind the watercraft. In blood, the creation of bubbles can cause a multitude of health problems. Topaz put it bluntly: It's bad news.
Topaz collaborated with associates Warren Powers and Peter Topaz — Steve's son — to research ways to reduce the amount of tearing on blood cells caused by the propeller's movement.
The team first started working with a smoke machine in Steve Topaz's basement, using an enlarged 14-inch model of the propeller device. Eventually, someone suggested that he could more creatively test the propeller.
"Then someone says, 'You know, it's a hell of a lot more fun to put it on a boat and go up and down the Columbia River,' which it is," Steve Topaz recalled. "And it also taught us a lot because you can really see how it works."
Peter Topaz is well versed in helping his dad develop artificial heart technologies, and briefly explained the process they followed.
"We took what we knew worked from the small impeller for the heart and tried to make a boat propeller. However there are a lot of differences between a closed system like the artificial heart and pushing a boat in water," Peter explained in an email.
A propeller pushes fluids, such as what is used on a boat, and differs slightly from an impeller, a rotor of similar design that produces a sucking force and is part of pump, such as exists in a ventricular assist device.
"It probably took two to three years to get a solid propeller working," Peter Topaz added.
The idea behind the new design was to reduce cavitation and to also reduce the likelihood that blood molecules were being ripped. The team continuously modified and refined its design over many years.
"I was repeatedly surprised how changing the design slightly in an unintuitive way would produce positive results," Peter Topaz noted.
Steve Topaz, who is also a freshman member of the St. Helens City Council, already has numerous accolades for his medical inventions, which have primarily revolved around artificial heart technologies. Since creating the improved propeller design, he initially obtained patents for it in Korea and Europe. And then in May, Steve Topaz received U.S. patent approval after a nearly four-year review process, which required the involvement of two different patent officers, one of whom needed to be qualified to understand fluid dynamics, he explained.
Upon finally receiving U.S. patent approval, Steve Topaz said he felt "both relief and absolute cheer, like, 'Wow!'"
Until now, the inventor said he has kept the design close to his chest. But since securing the patent approvals, however, Steve Topaz has been soliciting interest from companies interested in his propeller innovation.
In June, Steve Topaz attended the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs Association annual conference in San Francisco, where he pitched the design to numerous medical device companies.
"A lot them have the pump, but if we change out their propeller for our propeller, we can do a better job than they're doing," he said.
While the initial project was intended to find a way to improve the efficiency and reduce turbulence of blood flow into the heart with emergency implant devices, the resulting propeller design may prove useful in myriad applications. It could be used to help cargo ships increase their fuel efficiency, or help with military operations that require covert movements, Steve Topaz explained.
"Anyplace you need a propeller it would help," he said. "It's just what you're pumping is different."
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