University of Utah biomedical engineering assistant professor Lucas Timmins has received a five-year $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research the biomechanics associated with heart disease.

The grant will allow researchers to come up with a better way to predict if a person is at greater risk for heart disease by looking at the mechanics of the heart’s arteries (coronary arteries), such as how stiff the arteries become when diseased and how much additional stress that creates. By using image-based computer modeling, researchers can better understand the biomechanics in the setting of heart disease and how mechanics affects the progression of the disease.

Coronary artery disease, which is the leading cause of death worldwide, is the accumulation of substances such as calcium, fat and cholesterol that can block the flow of blood in the arteries to the heart. When these obstructions form, the change in the mechanical environment can promote further progression of the diseased and lead to a heart attack.

Typically, doctors can analyze a patient’s level of heart disease through procedures such as an EKG, CT or MRI scan, and routine blood test. However, the ability to predict a patient’s risk for a heart attack is low.

“We hope to advance the clinical value of biomechanics in the progression of coronary artery disease to better guide patient management and improve clinical outcomes,” Timmins said.

Faculty from the U’s biomedical engineering department, as well as the U’s Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute and School of Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine and Cambridge University are also involved in the research.