But Grande-Allen did ask that question. Even though replacement heart valves have become so effective, the surgery is still invasive—although work is being done to begin widely implanting them in a non surgical manner with a stent—and finding treatments for valve diseases remains an appealing goal. That’s why she has spent all this time on just that problem.
“We’re trying to improve the range of options for treating people with heart valve disease,” she said. “Some of my work is targeted to helping find new medications so people could just take some pills instead of having to have surgery.”
She credits her Transylvania professors for steering her in this direction, like former mathematics professor David Shannon.
“He was my mentor when I was at Transylvania, and he really impressed upon me that I should continue doing something that had a mathematical component,” she says. “So I was attracted to a project I saw on computer modeling of heart valves, and I signed on for that research project. I learned that it was a really compelling problem, and I’ve wanted to keep working on it ever since.
"It was such a lively atmosphere. Even the labs were fun. We studied together, we worked together—I just loved being at Transylvania.”
"It was such a lively atmosphere. Even the labs were fun. We studied together, we worked together—I just loved being at Transylvania. Her work has taken her from Seattle to the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, for five years, then to Rice in 2003, where she is the Isabel C. Cameron Professor and Department Chair in Bioengineering. Her research includes creating complex computer models of the valves that she uses to simulate not only the valve and its function, but diseases, abnormalities, and even surgeries.
She began by working with a tissue bank to get donated human heart valves that were not able to be used in patients. She did magnetic resonance imaging on the valves and was able to learn a lot about the size and geometry of normal valves. She took the results and entered the data into a computer application to render a simulated heart valve, where she was able to simulate numerous factors, including birth defects, diseases, and even surgery.
One of the more common diseases is calcific aortic valve disease, which is when the aortic valve turns into a mineralized, bony structure. Most people would have the aortic valve replaced, but Grande-Allen’s research is dedicated to fixing the problem at the source.
“My students and I have found some neat things,” Grande-Allen said. “We’ve found that certain chemicals will inhibit the calcification of heart valve cells, but these chemicals are also known to be things that would cause other problems if you gave them to patients. So we haven’t found some magic cure drug yet, but we’ve found some novel directions for studying the way cells are behaving.”
The recognition she’s gotten has served as an encouragement to continue battling the valve diseases. With as much progress as she’s made—she has published approximately 70 papers and counting—she is able to look fondly on her career so far.
“It’s been fulfilling, especially when I see how many people have read our papers over the years and built upon that work,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot along the way and have worked with some wonderful people.”