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College of Engineering at The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Saving lives

All in a day’s work for Ender Finol

Ender Finol stands in his lab in the Biotechnology, Sciences and Engineering Building on UTSA Main Campus with a vascular phantom — a silicone replica of a human aorta with an abdominal aortic aneurysm

When Ender Finol was a young child growing up in Venezuela, he never dreamed he’d one day be at the forefront of pioneering research that could save lives.

“I knew I would be an engineer one day, since my father was a professor of mechanical engineering, but I never thought I’d be where I am today,” he said.

Finol, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at The University of Texas at San Antonio, was recently awarded a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the clinical management of abdominal aortic aneurysms.

According to the American Heart Association, an abdominal aortic aneurysm occurs when the large blood vessel responsible for supplying blood to the abdomen, pelvis and legs becomes enlarged. A ruptured aneurysm is fatal. The disease is most common in men over age 60 with one or more risk factors, including: a family history, emphysema, high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol and smoking.

“We need a faster and more accurate way of knowing when these aneurysms will rupture,” he noted. “Through our research study, we hope to learn more about when surgery is unnecessary and when it can actually save lives.”

Finol said the primary goal of the grant is to develop a tool to predict when an abdominal aortic aneurysm is at risk for a rupture. The Centers for Disease Control reported aortic aneurysms were the primary cause of more than 10,000 deaths in the United States in 2009. Each year, an estimated 200,000 people are diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.

“We are trying to provide vascular surgeons with a resource they can use in the clinic to decide whether a patient should be operated on right away or if surgery can be delayed in favor of surveillance,” he said.

One of the key tools Finol and his team will use in the study (the first step, which begins this summer) is called a vascular phantom, a silicone replica of a human aorta with an abdominal aortic aneurysm. It will be used for experiments to mimic the blood flow circulation in the aorta using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

“The images acquired from the scanner will allow us to validate the method we are developing for the grant, which consists of predicting the wall stress on the aneurysms solely with the use of clinical images,” he explained.

Finol chats with Chauhan, Mirunalini Thirugnanasambandam, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, and David Zhang, a senior biomedical engineering student. The students will be working with Finol on his National Institutes of Health grant.

Eventually, the grant will involve clinical research of 200 patients at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. Finol is working in collaboration with colleagues at the Allegheny Health Research Network, École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Saint-Étienne in France and Drs. Victor De Oliveira and Prahlad Menon at UTSA. Studying the patients will take three years, with the fourth and final year of the study dedicated solely to analyzing the data.

Finol began his work in this field 17 years ago, when he started his Ph.D. studies and his thesis advisor suggested he study blood flow in abdominal aortic aneurysms. He said he’s grateful of the support he has received from the university.

“The reputation of UTSA is enhanced with this research grant and it expands the research portfolio of UTSA as a whole,” he said. “NIH is the most prestigious source of funding for research with a bioengineering or clinical focus. The grant also has a local economic impact, as we will eventually employ two post-doctoral fellows.”

Born and raised in Venezuela, Finol is a mechanical engineer by training and first started his career at the Ford Motor Company as a Quality Engineer, ensuring cars in the Venezuelan factory met quality standards.

“After awhile, I realized I was unsatisfied with my job. I knew I wanted to make a difference somehow and I didn’t feel I was applying all my knowledge,” he recalled. “I also needed more intellectual stimulation, so I decided to pursue my graduate studies, which eventually led to where I am today.”

When Finol learned he had received the NIH grant, his largest to date, he was elated.

“My first reaction was: ‘At last…this has been a long time coming!’” he laughed. “I was working from home that morning, writing a manuscript that was later submitted for publication. Needless to say, that was a good day!”

Although actual work on the grant is not slated to begin until the summer, Finol has plenty to keep himself busy, including his biggest accomplishment: being a married father of three children, all girls, ages 10, 9 and 6.

“It’s an interesting job, to have responsibility of the lives of three little humans,” he reflected. “It brings a different perspective to life.”

Raising three small girls in a world of biomedical engineering, Finol said he hopes at least one of his children has an interest in the field someday. He also has advice for parents who wish to cultivate a budding scientist or engineer.

“Children need a role model, someone the child can look up to, like a scientist or engineer. They learn directly from their role models, either at school or home. The earlier you expose them to math and science, the better the odds they will develop a genuine love of all things engineering.”

—Rebecca Esparza/MBA

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