Patient bikes to gain aid for U lab

by Marni Ginther

A year ago last Friday, Bill Matson, a New Hampshire stock portfolio manager, had a heart valve replaced.

To commemorate the procedure Friday, he took a tour of the University’s Experimental Surgical Services lab where his artificial heart valve was tested. It was one of the last stops on a cross-country bike tour he began in January.

“I wasn’t trying to set any records or impress anyone with my mileage,” Matson said. “I wanted to raise money and promote awareness for the work these folks do.”

These folks are the researchers at the Experimental Surgical Services lab, a division of the University’s department of surgery, who helped develop Matson’s heart valve.

After receiving his new valve, Matson, 52, did some research on the origins and development of the technology that saved his life.

He came up with the name of Richard Bianco, director of the lab.

“(Matson) is the kind of guy that wants to know more,” Bianco said. “So he Googled ‘heart valve,’ our names came up as people who work on developing new heart valves, and then he e-mailed us out of the blue and said, ‘I’m interested in supporting your work.’ “

Besides being a way to get in shape after his surgery, Matson said the bike trip is a way to learn about, promote and raise money for the research that saved his life.

“(Bianco) has been researching heart valves for the past 20 years or so,” Matson said. “Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that I would need that kind of surgery, but thank God somebody was researching it at the time.”

Matson has collected donations and pledges from schools and companies to support his bike tour. He’s given $3,000 to the Experimental Surgical Services lab and is working on getting companies in his stock portfolio to pledge some of their stock to the lab’s research as well.

Donations like Matson’s are important because labs like the University’s are supported largely by grants, Bianco said. Organizations like the National Institutes of Health, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, give grants to labs around the country, but those grants are becoming harder to get, he said.

In turn, labs that do research of this scale are becoming scarce.

The University’s lab is one of only a few in the country that work with the Food and Drug Administration to approve devices and procedures independently of the companies that develop them, Bianco said.

Although companies that manufacture devices such as valves are required by law to have their own testing labs, he said it’s important to have labs at public universities, where only the researchers and the FDA call the shots.

“I’m not accusing any companies of anything, but it’s important that research like this is done without financial conflicts of interest,” Bianco said. “Only that way can you make a decision based truly upon the best interest of the patient.”

The University’s lab tests about 90 percent of all artificial heart valves developed worldwide, Bianco said.

“Most valves we evaluate don’t pass right away,” Bianco said. “And that’s an example of why we’re here. I look at is as a public service.”

Devices like heart valves, he said, typically take one to five years to test.

But evaluating valves and devices isn’t the only thing the lab does, said lab manager Lynn Hartman.

Researchers there also work to develop and perfect surgical procedures and conduct stem-cell research, she said.

Much of that research is on the cutting edge of modern medicine, and some things researchers are developing are “very exciting,” Bianco said.

For example, the lab is researching ways patients like Matson could grow their own heart valve instead of receiving an artificial valve.

“That’s really exciting,” Bianco said. “That involves stem cells and all the latest technology. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close.”