Real Rowan Research: Cooling blood = Saving lives

Real Rowan Research: Cooling blood = Saving lives

A team of researchers led by mechanical engineering Prof. Tom Merrill hopes a new-age catheter they're developing will save countless lives.

The next great wave in medicine could arrive through the tiniest of tubes – high-tech catheters engineered right here at Rowan.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Tom Merrill, professor of mechanical engineering, a small group of engineers and engineering students is developing technology designed to instantly cool heart muscle following a heart attack and brain tissue after a stroke.

Doctors know that cooling tissue following trauma dramatically slows tissue damage but they do not yet possess the equipment or technique to arrest that damage to the heart and brain. Researchers have tried to mimic the preserving effect of frigid water on the body when a skater falls through ice but Merrill believes that approach is too slow and non-specific.

His company, FocalCool, LLC, is designing a multi-chambered catheter for insertion directly into the heart or brain where, Merrill believes, it will cool tissue quickly and specifically where the cooling is needed.

“We’re talking about going right into the organ and cooling it with a device doctors are already familiar with,” he said.

Merrill, who joined the Rowan faculty in 2008, several Rowan students, and Merrill’s wife, Denise, form the core of FocalCool, a bio-engineering firm that has secured nearly $1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health for research. The firm rents lab space in the South JerseyTechnology Park at Rowan University where Merrill hopes to perfect their multi-chambered catheter design.

Unlike standard guide catheters, which have a single chamber, Merrill’s product would have three. Blood and cold saline solution would flow through the catheter to the damaged organ and back to a mechanical pumping device where it would be re-chilled and returned to the organ.

Other researchers have attempted various methods of cooling the entire body to arrest heart attack or stroke damage but those attempts have generally not been successful, Merrill said. He believes FocalCool may be successful in part because it is incorporating existing guide catheter technology in its research.

“The idea is when a doctor picks it up it looks and feels like a standard catheter,” he said.

Merrill credits Dr. Jay Yadav, a pioneer in cardiac stent technology and CEO of medical device company CardioMems for early, and continuing, support.

As Merrill explored product development in 2000 it was Yadav, he said, who suggested he take advantage of existing catheter technology that interventionists use every day.

“Not only is Dr. Yadav an investor but he’s a vital creative force behind our potential product,” Merrill said.

Todd Nilsen, a senior mechanical engineering major, has been working for FocalCool as an undergrad and will stay on with the company full time after Commencement in May.

“We’re designing the channels to optimize the heat transfer properties,” said Nilsen, 21, of Brick. “A membrane separates the coolant (saline solution) from the blood itself.”

Senior ME major Tony LaBarck, 22, of Vernon, seeks a career in the field of thermal fluids but never expected to find hands-on experience on campus as an undergrad.

“It’s exciting because we’re working on a product that’s emerging,” he said. “Employers like to see you’re working on a project like this.”

The team also includes Jennifer Docimo, a summa cum laude 2002 Rowan engineering graduate.

Merrill, whose career, in a sense, has always involved cooling and high-tech tubes, began his professional life as a researcher for the Carrier Corporation, a global leader in air conditioning, heating and refrigeration systems. It was at Carrier that he met Denise, an engineer in her own right who holds a masters in engineering from the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Following his work at Carrier, Merrill researched oxygen exchange in the bloodstream at the University of Pittsburgh, research designed to lessen the risk of lung damage for pulmonary patients who suffer ventilator induced trauma.

He expects his work on guide catheter technology to last until it is proven successful in humans but then hopes to sell his design to a medical device company better funded to produce it.

“In order to bring a device like this to market costs tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “My interest is in early development – successful outcome in trials, some impressive human results, then license the technology to a company with the resources to bring it to market.”

Merrill expects to begin human trials within two years and thinks a viable launch date in the marketplace could come within five.

Watch the FocalCool Video!