Putting Research Into Practice

Doctoral Student Partnering with Local Clinician to Develop Prosthetic Vein Valve

Images of swollen legs, discolored ankles and ulcers probably aren't what come to mind for most people when they think of cardiovascular health complications. However, those are very real symptoms that can lead to even more serious complications when blood is not properly flowing through the veins. University of Arkansas biomedical engineering doctoral student Megan Laughlin is working to provide a solution to these medical woes by developing a prosthetic venous valve that would restore function and normal blood flow to the deep veins.

"Venous valves are kind of the forgotten child of cardiovascular research, but the health problems associated with vein issues are a big deal," Laughlin said. "Initial problems result in discomfort and pain in the lower limbs. As problems move into the deep veins, blood clots develop, and that can lead to deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal."

According to Laughlin, conducting research in a relatively unexplored field is beneficial, because there is a lot of opportunity for discovery. But, being at the forefront of discovery also comes with some challenges.

"There's not a lot of previous research, so we're having to do a lot of trial and error and answer a lot of preliminary questions before we can get to the main problem we're trying to solve," she said.

One of the challenges Laughlin is facing is determining how long it takes for venous valves to fatigue. The variability of the venous valves has also been a challenge, as the valves are located in different places in different people and the valves are shaped differently in different people. Additionally, the valves are under extremely low pressures and flows, meaning the valves open and close irregularly.

To help address some of these unresolved questions and get a clinical perspective, Laughlin and her adviser Morten Jensen have partnered with Dr. Kevin Haney at the Ozark Regional Vein Center.

"I think sometimes research projects can be so stuck in the research side of things that it's hard to see how it translates outside the lab," Laughlin said. "Working with Dr. Haney and getting his feedback on the clinical impact has been amazing. One of the most rewarding parts of the project has been working with him and seeing how what we're doing can actually change people's lives."

Laughlin, who is a Doctoral Academy Fellow, initially did not think graduate school was in the cards for her. However, after discovering a love for research as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, she made plans to pursue at master's degree. When she met Jensen as an applicant to the biomedical engineering program, he convinced her a doctoral degree was a better fit for her.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought I would do a doctorate," she said. "But, Dr. Jensen presented me with a really great opportunity, and I think it's exactly what I am meant to be doing. It has been an experience far more than I could have ever asked for, and I'm so thankful it worked out this way."