NIH Grant Will Help BME Professor Engineer Novel Diagnostic Device

When a patient arrives in an emergency room complaining of chest pain, a doctor can't be sure if the cause is the heart — or esophagus. More than half of the time, it's the latter. Associate Professor Ghassan Kassab intends to more effectively differentiate the two, thanks to funding from the National Institutes of Health. The $800,000 grant will help him accomplish dual goals: to understand the cause of esophageal pain and to create a clinical device to effectively diagnose it.

"Initially, we are trying to understand the origin of pain, what we refer to as hypersensitivity, in the esophagus," says Kassab. "Our preliminary results show that hypersensitivity correlates with strain or stretch of the esophagus."

The professor also expects to see a correlation between pressaure and thickness of the esophagus and hypersensitivity.

On another front, Kassab and colleague Ravi Mittal, from UC San Diego, want to create a more quantitative and scientific method to diagnose the condition. The two have engineered a novel system that uses a balloon ultrasonography to measure the thickness, radius and pressure in the esophagus. Once inside the esophagus, the balloon can be inflated as needed to increase the stretch or pressure, which the ultrasound will then record. The researchers plan to correlate changes in the geometry of the esophagus with sensation and pain. In the future, the device might be used by doctors to confirm that chest pain is due to esophageal dysfunction and not a heart attack — welcome news for all chest pain sufferers.