Inspiration comes in many forms for people who seek a career in biomedical engineering: While some enter the field because of a personal connection with a particular disease, just as many pursue the path for its incredible challenges and sense of accomplishment that come with helping others live their fullest lives.
A person who sought out those challenges is Abbott engineer Rick Olson, a divisional vice president and leader of product development in the company's structural heart business. Olson's team recently saw their work recognized by FDA approval of a pediatric mechanical heart valve — the smallest in the world — specifically designed to treat heart defects in very young patients, including newborns. The dime-sized device can save lives.
Though small valves already existed, they often weren’t small enough for really tiny hearts, such as in a newborn. The team's challenge was to shrink existing mechanical heart valves by 2 millimeters — a challenge that, once overcome, became one of the most fulfilling experiences of Olson's career.
Solving for the complexities of medical devices
When Olson first entered the engineering world, he didn't anticipate he would be developing medical devices. It was the pursuit of a challenging and rewarding career that led Olson to medical technology, and eventually toward the small-scale mechanical puzzles inherent in devices like coronary stents and balloon catheters.
"It's nice to see the end product of what you've worked on and how it impacts peoples' lives," Olson says.
He adds, "I kind of got hooked on it." It was that type of satisfaction that led Olson to work at Abbott's structural heart business, where he joined a vast team of professionals with a passion just like his. It was only with sufficient resources and in this special environment where he could have imagined completing a project as ambitious as the world's smallest mechanical heart valve.
Developing a valve that fits takes a team
Artificial heart valves are deceptively complex devices. They're required to act non-stop for years on end without failing, and they have to do it the harsh, constantly moving environment of a human body that has a natural inclination to reject foreign objects. Designing a valve that can function properly at only 15 millimeters in size was an incredible feat.
It wasn't enough to simply take existing valve designs and shrink them, as this creates blood flow issues that cause more problems than they fix.
"It's one thing to make something small, but it also has to be effective," Olson says. "Everything in the body revolves around blood flow ... so it was about balancing how small we can make it while still having it be large enough to work effectively. Two millimeters might not seem like much, but when it comes to a child's heart, that can be all the space in the world."