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From North Carolina to Norfolk, Knisley Brings Cardiac Expertise to Position as Batten Chair in Biomedical Engineering

For Stephen Knisley, coming to Old Dominion University from his leadership position at two North Carolina schools came down to a host of advantages of being here.

Knisley, ODU's Batten Endowed Chair in Biomedical Engineering, and a professor of mechanical engineering, joined the university recently after running a joint graduate program between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.

A number of factors drew Knisley to ODU, but the first among them was the research being done by Richard Heller and his team at the Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics. "I had known about their biomedical research for several years from the work that Karl Schoenbach's group pioneered with ultrashort electric pulses. That work is very interesting," Knisley said.

For one thing, it meshes very well with Knisley's background.

His research has focused largely on the heart, specifically cardiac electrophysiology and how electrical stimulation can restore the ability to pump blood after a heart attack.

"When the ventricles go into fibrillation, the person will die in a few minutes unless something is done quickly," Knisley said. An electric shock is the only effective therapy. He said that over the past 50 years, "nobody had understood why the shock can save the person - how the electric pulse interacts with the heart and why a shock sometimes succeeds and other times does not succeed."

There has been a big effort to understand that process so that the devices that deliver the shocks can be designed to be more effective. Recently, electrical therapies are proposed to help even more patients. "Some of these patients have to get a transplanted heart or an artificial pump. We want to find ways to stimulate their own heart so it pumps blood better," Knisley said. To do that, researchers are trying to synchronize the mechanical contraction of the cardiac fibers.

Knisley (pronounced "nicely") has been an investigator on research grants totaling approximately $7 million and has patents titled "A system and method for cardioversion using scan stimulation" and "Line electrode oriented relative to fiber direction." He has filed a provisional patent application for a device for electromechanical therapy against heart failure.

When he started his research, Knisley was interested in optical mapping of cardiac electrophysiology. "It's like a movie of the heart that shows how the cells are working," he explained. The process uses laser light and fast fluorescent dyes to see the cellular membrane activity and to spot potential problems with heart function. It also shows intracellular calcium concentration. Calcium is the ion species that controls the heart's mechanical contraction.

Knisley said the heart has a special multicellular structure that allows it to function the way it does. A great deal of Knisley's research has focused on pacemaker and defibrillation technology, as well as the study of abnormal rhythms of the heart, from a mathematical and experimental perspective.

Now that he's at ODU (Knisley started Oct. 10), he's excited about the collaborative nature of the research being done on the campus.

"I'd like to introduce cardiac electrophysiological and mechanical research to engineering students here," he said. "There is a lot that engineers can do to help solve health problems."

Knisley grew up in Pennsylvania, but has spent most of his academic career in North Carolina, first as an engineer at Duke graduating in 1973, and later a post-doctoral and research professor there through 1994. In between, he earned the Ph.D at UNC in 1988. He also worked at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia in 1992-1993, the University of Alabama at Birmingham from 1994-2000, and Nagoya University in Japan in 1996. Since 2000, Knisley has been working at both UNC and NC State on a joint program in biomedical engineering.

Knisley is also interested in the work that has been done in the health field in the area of modeling and simulation, particularly through ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC).

"Modeling and simulation at ODU is another reason that attracted me here," Knisley said. "ODU has a very significant advantage with its computational modeling faculty."

Knisley thinks the potential exists for the university to pool its expertise to do the first complete computer simulation of the entire human body. "The potential benefits and ramifications of that would be tremendous."

Once he seriously began to consider the position at ODU, Knisley visited the campus, saying later: "I got a very positive impression from the people that I visited when I came to see about the job."

He added, as an angler, diver and boater, "I also looked around and loved all the water around here."

This article was posted on: November 24, 2009

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