Innovations and innovators come in all forms. In each issue of Texas Innovator, The In Crowd will help bring you a little closer to some of Texas' brightest innovators, their perspective on why Texas is ideal for new approaches and even tips on fueling the creative mind inside us all.
William Cohn, M.D.
– Houston’s Texas Heart Institute
It’s best to not need heart surgery. In the event you do, however, it’s good to know that Texas doctors have long been at the forefront of the field’s research.
With some 90 patents to his credit, William Cohn, M.D., is one of those Texans. Cohn is the director of Minimally Invasive Surgical Technology at Houston’s Texas Heart Institute.
“The invention that put me on the map was one of the first cardiac stabilizers for performing coronary artery bypass without the heart and lung machine,” says Cohn.
Like many innovations, Cohn’s cardiac stabilizer started out at home with an idea and some simple tools.
“I started working at home with ladles and spoons, a hacksaw and a drill to develop prototypes of the stabilizer,” he says. “From there, I took them into the animal lab and continued to iterate and refine them until they performed as desired. Ultimately, I got clearance from my division chief and the hospital to bring them into the operating room.”
Observations from clinical experience with the device allowed further refinement. The stabilizer was licensed and commercialized by a Boston biotech firm and has subsequently been used in more than 250,000 cardiac operations.
Cohn credits his mother and Houston surgical legends Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley for his interest in cardiac surgery.
“When I was a young boy, DeBakey and Cooley were doing innovative and groundbreaking work in the field that helped cement Houston as a global hotspot for cardiac surgery,” he says. “Houston newspapers would frequently report on their efforts. My mom would cut out the articles and put them next to my cereal bowl, and I would tell her, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Eventually, Cohn earned a spot on DeBakey’s surgical team and served as his last chief resident. Debakey’s guidance and mentorship paved the way for Cohn’s own innovations in the surgical world.
Cohn’s work now includes extensive research with mentor O.H. “Bud” Frazier on a continuous-flow total artificial heart that utilizes a pair of turbines to pump blood through the body. The artificial heart is considerably smaller than those previously developed, and because it has no valves or flexible components, it could be much more durable. Animal trials have yielded promising results. If a device of this sort could be refined to the point of clinical application, it could revolutionize the treatment of end-stage heart failure and save countless lives. The project evolved from the work performed at the Texas Heart Institute over the past 20 years, focused on continuous flow pumps to assist a weakened heart.
“In 2009, if you have heart failure, your options are so much greater than they were even six or seven years ago,” says Cohn.
The price of innovation and research, however, is not cheap.
“A lot of my efforts have been funded by venture capital, and Texas has really gained ground there,” he says. “There are some wonderful firms in Texas now with a lot of money invested in up-and-coming medical devices.”
The investment scene has slowed somewhat, Cohn says, but he adds that good ideas are always popular and still warrant investment, especially in early-stage medical development.
“Texas was built on the wildcatter’s spirit,” he says. “I think that spirit, combined with the incredible intellectual resources that are available, makes Texas, especially Houston, the next big thing in medical device innovation.”
For more information on the Texas Heart Institute, visit its Web site at www.texasheartinstitute.org.