Meet the Irish scientist in Australia creating software to tackle heart attacks

8 Feb 2022

Image: Dr Barry Doyle

Irishman Dr Barry Doyle explains how his family history triggered an interest in the area of heart disease and how he’s developing software-based tools to help surgeons.

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the world, an issue that Dr Barry Doyle has been focusing on for years. He was working at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth when he was presented with a clinical problem by a cardiologist in 2014.

“He was saving their lives, they’d just had a heart attack, he was putting stents in, the best management, the best imaging, the best devices,” Doyle said. “Regardless of that, one in three of his patients would either be dead or be back in with another heart attack within three years.”

Future Human

Doyle is now associate professor of biomedical engineering at UWA, the programme head of cardiovascular science and diabetes at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, and the head of the Vascular Engineering Lab (VascLab) at UWA which he established in 2014. He has also founded two start-ups that could change the way we treat patients.

Apricot: an advanced imaging tool

With the help of fellow researchers at VascLab, the latest result of Doyle’s work is Apricot, an advanced software-based imaging tool designed to help surgeons detect coronary artery issues before they can lead to further heart attacks.

Doyle said the problem for cardiologists is they can only treat the parts of the disease they can see. “But it’s the kind of underlying disease that is growing and developing that they can’t yet see. That’s what comes back to haunt them in the future. So that was the clinical problem and then we set out on a path of research and discovery to try to address that.”

Apricot aims to provide new information to the cardiologist when they are treating a patient, by combining other real-time images used by surgeons – such as angiography and optical coherence tomography (OCT) – and merging them into an advanced 3D visualisation of a diseased artery. This information could help surgeons make decisions when treating the artery, such as knowing the correct size of the stent they should use.

Apricot also runs simulations to assess where the most stress is being caused in arteries to show surgeons areas where plaque build-up is most likely to cause a rupture.

Visual representation of the images Apricot creates.

Example of the images Apricot creates. Image: Navier Medical

Doyle has developed Apricot over the past seven years with researchers including Dr Lachlan Kelsey from UWA’s School of Engineering and with collaboration from Prof Carl Schultz, the UWA cardiology chair and the surgeon who first presented the clinical problem to Doyle.

Last year, the Irishman and his team founded Navier Medical to commercialise the Apricot technology. In November, the start-up received the Rio Tinto Emerging Innovation Award at the WA Innovator of the Year 2021 awards.

Doyle said there are many challenges associated with taking university research from the lab into the real world, but he expects the product to be ready for launch by 2025.

“When you’re doing something in the confinement of a university academic setting, you’re very protected and you’re in this kind of different world. Then you come out into the big bad world and you can just be chewed up and spat out within minutes, so it’s been fun.”

Irish roots

Doyle was born in Enniscorthy in Wexford. His family moved to England when he was six years old, before settling in Cork when he was 10.

He originally had plans to study computer science as his dad had a computer company. But as he was preparing to leave school, a new course in biomedical engineering was being launched at Cork Institute of Technology. It was a time when new companies were arriving in Ireland and this sector was starting to emerge.

Doyle joined the course in the year 2000 and became “hooked” within a couple of weeks once he understood the ways he could blend engineering with biology and medicine. He went on to do an undergraduate and PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of Limerick.

“All the things I couldn’t be bothered with about school, I just threw myself at in university. I really just loved the content and then really did pretty well.”

While Doyle was in college, his father suddenly had a heart attack at the age of 45, which pushed Doyle’s interest in the cardio field specifically.

“As soon as I got to university and realised you could actually engineer new therapies, new treatments, new devices, then my dad having a heart attack pretty soon after that, it was another real trigger for me. My dad smoked, he was a bit of a drinker, he was relatively fit, but smoking is the big one.

“My uncle on my mum’s side was practically an athlete all his life, a vegetarian, never smoked, and he had a massive heart attack when he was 47. I’ve early heart attacks on both sides of my family. That’s been a key driver for some of the stuff I’m doing with Apricot and Navier.”

Mosaic: Apricot’s other half

The other product being developed by Navier Medical is Mosaic, an advanced coronary artery assessment tool designed to work with Apricot to improve the detection of heart disease.

“Think of your arteries turning to bone as you start to age, they build up calcium deposits. At a certain point the calcium will be big enough so you can see it on a CT scanner. But with micro-calcification activity, you can’t see it on the CT because it’s too small, so we’re developing a way to visualise that using your bog-standard CT scanner,” Doyle explained.

“Mosaic will catch patients as they come in the door of the hospital, and Apricot will be for the people who are in hospital having a heart attack and being treated, so the plan is to get two ends of the spectrum.”

Mosaic imaging showing a heart and arteries.

Mosaic. Image: Navier Medical

Projects for the future

While his passion lies in cardiovascular health, Doyle branched out a few years ago to co-found FloMatrix after he was approached by former nurse Caroline Shelverton.

Doyle had been researching cannulas, the thin tube that medical professionals insert into a person’s body cavity such as their nose or into a vein. According to Doyle, they are the most commonly used medical device in the world with roughly 2.5bn produced each year.

“What very few people know is about 50pc of these devices, they become blocked too early. So if you’re in hospital and you’re there for three days, you’ll probably have maybe two or three cannulas stuck into you, because they start to clot really early.”

Doyle said FloMatrix is designing and patenting a new type of cannula with the aim of reducing failures.

With multiple companies, academic commitments and two young children to look after, Doyle has his hands full at home and in the lab, with projects that will keep him occupied for the foreseeable future.

“It’s absolutely bonkers a lot of the time, it’s full on. I’ve teaching commitments at UWA, there’s a lot of admin work just with being an academic, running the research groups…It’s one of those things where it’s like, just work hard and make hay while the sun shines.

“If I can Mosaic and Apricot regulated and on the shelves in five years, I’ll be a very happy man,” he added. “Then of course FloMatrix, making sure that’s going to be a success. While I’m relatively young, fit and healthy I may as well have a crack and see what happens.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic