A man with designs on your heart

Dr Shehab Al Ansari, of Harvard Medical School, wants to protect the human heart – and bring his passion for cardiology to his home country.

Dr Shehab Al Ansari hopes his research could produce a device that helps pre-condition hearts so the organs are better prepared for heart attacks. Satish Kumar / The National
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DUBAI // The human heart is the part of the body that Dr Shehab Al Ansari finds most fascinating – and he hopes to find new ways to protect it.

“I’m really interested in targeting the heart before the damage is done,” said Dr Al Ansari, who is working to develop a device to help to train the heart to resist heart attacks.

Research has suggested that training the heart in advance of an event such as a heart attack can greatly reduce its severity should it occur.

He plans to present his design for a prototype product to Harvard Medical School, where he is a student, in the next year.

“My goal is to bring that to the UAE,” said Dr Al Ansari, 25, from Dubai.

While he cannot reveal details about the design because of patenting issues, the vision is for something that is easy for everyone to use and does not require an invasive procedure.

The science behind it is ischaemic preconditioning, in which parts of the body are subjected to brief episodes of a loss of blood supply, and therefore oxygen, to build resistance.

An experiment in 1986 found dogs that underwent this preconditioning before obstructing the coronary artery experienced less tissue death because of oxygen loss – or infarction – than dogs that did not have ischaemic preconditioning.

Research has since suggested that the preconditioning does not have to use such a crucial artery as the coronary artery, said Dr Al Ansari.

That means that ischaemic preconditioning could be something that is part of a patient’s everyday life, something that they could hook up, even, to a smartphone.

“Basically you condition your heart to resist low-oxygen environments,” he said. “These days they do it through an invasive way. My product kind of tackles it in a non-invasive way, an easy thing to use on a day-to-day basis.”

It could particularly benefit patients before having heart surgery, he said, to reduce the risk of mortality.

Dr Al Ansari chose his field because he saw it as the greatest opportunity to help others. It is also a field that is open to innovation, something which has held his interest ever since he played with Lego building blocks as a child.

“Why cardiology? What’s the number one cause of death?” he said. “I wanted to do something that would help people the most. The heart is pretty delicate.”

Dr Al Ansari was able to put that into action while working as a physician, after graduating near the top of his class at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

He had a patient with heart failure – when someone’s heart cannot pump well enough to meet the body’s needs – who he treated along with a medical team.

“By the fifth day he was fine – he was walking, breathing normally,” said Dr Al Ansari.

The man was so pleased with his treatment that he brought the doctor a gift.

“That was one of the best moments in my life, because it’s gratifying,” he said.

Dr Al Ansari hopes to encourage other young people, especially fellow Emiratis and Arabian Gulf nationals, to enter medicine for this reason, particularly in rigorous fields such as neurology and cardiology.

He has started a Facebook group, UAE Medics, to offer advice and to encourage his generation to put in the effort for the reward of a satisfying career that saves lives.

“Medicine, OK, it pays, but only once you’re on top of the food chain,” he said. “They need to know that it’s also very gratifying.”