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Taking a chance

August 19, 2015

By Eleni Kanavas

It was a coincidence that led George Hanna to Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI).

The third-year undergraduate student, who is completing a co-op program in engineering, biomedical and electrical studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, received an email in January inviting him to attend an open house hosted by the department of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto.

Having never heard of this showcase, Hanna booked a ticket on a Greyhound bus and set out on a four-hour trip from Ottawa to Toronto to learn more about the opportunities available in medical research and engineering.

“I decided to apply to the medical biophysics summer undergraduate program through U of T. I started reading about every single professor, and Dr. Graham Wright was one of the professors that really interested me because of his background [in cardiovascular imaging],” he says. “I just took a leap of faith.”

Hanna joined the lab of Dr. Graham Wright, director of the Schulich Heart Research Program at SRI, this summer to fulfil his third co-op placement. When he started working with his mentor Dr. Eranga Ukwatta, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wright lab, Hanna then applied and was accepted to the D+H SRI Summer Student Research Program. The summer project is an ongoing collaboration between SRI and the lab of Dr. Natalia Trayanova at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.

“The objective of my research is to utilize personalized computational models of cardiac electrophysiology, which incorporate border-zone scar [tissue] data collected using multicontrast late-enhancement cardiac magnetic resonance imaging, in order to predict clinical outcomes in patients with ischemic heart disease,” Hanna says. Ischemic heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease, is a condition that arises when arteries become blocked, thus reducing blood flow to the heart.

Hanna notes the methods used for risk stratification of patients who are at risk of abnormal heart rhythms are not accurate enough. Some patients who are treated with a pacemaker or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator may never have a heart attack and need to use the device, while other patients who do not get the treatment may end up with a heart attack, he says.

“This project is an attempt to noninvasively and accurately predict whether someone is at risk of ventricular tachycardia (rapid heart beat), using cardiac magnetic resonance imaging,” says Hanna, who says he is motivated by the project’s clinical relevance especially in a hospital-based research setting.

His day-to-day work consists of working on a computer and using MATLAB, a computing language software used by engineers for algorithm development, data analysis and visualization. He also uses other in-house tools to analyze patient information and to create 3-D models of the heart by reviewing magnetic resonance images to try and segment the heart.

“My favourite point was when I reconstructed the first patient’s heart and I had a 3-D rendering of it. I think that was the most rewarding part because I had been writing a lot of scripts before in MATLAB to basically create the 3-D image,” he says. “It’s really cool, but I’m not going to take credit for doing it all on my own because 90% of the help I got was from Eranga. It was the best moment of the whole summer.”

Some of Hanna’s other highlights from working at SRI include interacting with the graduate students in the lab and attending the weekly seminars, which he says has given him exposure to research he had never heard of. “Honestly, it’s been my best co-op term.”

When asked what he plans to do next, he says, “I definitely know that I want to do graduate studies because, ideally, one day I’d like to be a professor. I don’t know what the subject of my PhD is yet or [in] what domain, but I’m definitely considering medical biophysics and SRI.”

George Hanna received a D+H Summer Studentship Award.

George Hanna