Outline of computational and mathematical framework for multi-scale simulations of cardiac electrophysiology that will be used for projects conducted in Dr. Boyle’s Cardiac Systems Simulation Lab.
Before any heart-saving treatments are created, first researchers have to make the heart sensitive to light. In 2016, Dr. Boyle worked with his Johns Hopkins mentor, Professor Natalia Trayanova, and experimental collaborators at the University of Bonn to show that optogenetic defibrillation halted arrhythmia in mouse hearts. This approach also worked in computer simulations of the human heart. That research, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, also determined the kind of light needed to penetrate cardiac tissue. Their remaining challenges are to determine how to make the human heart light sensitive and how to deliver a large amount of light to the heart’s surface, something they simulated in the paper. “We have an idea about how that might look, but progress in gene and cell therapy hasn’t progressed to the point where it would make sense to try a clinical trial,” he says.
Dr. Boyle’s mission is two-fold. First, he aims to develop applications, such as exploring the feasibility of optogenetic defibrillation, using a computational model to better understand how arrythmias happen when stem-cell derived cells are injected into the heart, and working with clinicians to develop personalized treatment strategies for cardiac ablation.
A second priority, Dr. Boyle says, is to ensure that these solutions are scalable to real-world clinical demands. His team’s computational simulations are highly complex and require massive computational power to produce patient-specific predictions in a clinically relevant period. In one study, clinical collaborators asked his team at Johns Hopkins to deliver accurate patient-specific treatment plans based on simulations in less than 24 hours. “That’s an all hands on deck situation,” he says. However, this resource-intensive approach isn’t sustainable in the long term – it can’t be used to treat hundreds or thousands of patients. “Part of my overarching mission in my career is to find ways to simplify and automate those tasks in a responsible way so that we can get accurate results from these computational simulations without everything in the lab grinding to a halt,” Dr. Boyle says. Over the next five to six years, he hopes to advance the technology enough to produce reliable and accurate computational analysis with minimal human intervention.
At UW, Dr. Boyle expects he will have the computing power to meet this goal. He figured the UW’s computational facilities would be good, but he underestimated the strength and diversity of the available resources. “I’m going to have an incredible amount of computational power at my fingertips,” he says. He also appreciates UW’s partnerships with several major cloud providers.
As an undergraduate, Dr. Boyle originally planned to go to medical school. However, he found his pre-med classes boring. He began sitting in on computer programming courses with his friends, which he found so interesting he decided to switch to a computer engineering degree, while still planning to go to medical school. As a first-year graduate student, he took a cardiovascular physiology class where he observed experiments and paid a visit to the cadaver lab. “At that point, I realized oh, this is not for me,” Dr. Boyle says. “I’m grateful that I had that realization earlier and I’m much better suited to computational cardiology.”
Between his junior and senior years in college, he took an 11-month internship at Sanyo Electric Company in Japan. There, he worked on their broadcast multimedia team, developing technology that’s often taken for granted – the ability to stream a high-definition movie on a phone, computer or TV. He credits the experience with steering him to his passion for the quantitative side of his biomedical engineering research.
Dr. Boyle is excited to return to the Northwest, as he grew up in Western Canada. In addition to skiing, he looks forward to exploring Seattle’s music and culture. “I’m excited to move to a city that has a strong and vibrant indie scene,” he says. He points out that Seattle has one of the last local independent weekly newspapers, The Stranger. He wrote science stories for his university newspaper in Calgary and during graduate school he wrote about music and film for an independent monthly music magazine called BeatRoute. “Keeping abreast of the local music and film scene informed my life in Baltimore and helped me stay grounded and not think about science all the time. Since moving to Seattle, the radio dial in our car has seldom moved away from 90.3 KEXP and that has served as a great way to help make this city truly feel like home.”