ERC Starting Grant for Ali Akyildiz

Nieuws - 22 november 2022 - Webredactie 3mE

The European Research Council has awarded an ERC Starting Grant to Ali Akyildiz, researcher at 3mE’s Department of Biomechanical Engineering and the Cardiology Department of Erasmus Medical Centre (EMC) in Rotterdam. Akyildiz’s research focusses on cardiovascular biomechanics, specifically individual people’s susceptibility to cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke, due to biomechanical failure in their blood vessels. This 1.5 million euros grant is to cover the costs of a five-year research programme, and is awarded to researchers who are at the start of their career, but have already excelled in a promising line of research.

“I’m a mechanical engineer by training but during my Master’s degree, I moved to the biomedical field,” says Akyildiz. “For many years I supervised TU Delft students for their research projects at Erasmus MC. In 2020, together with some colleagues from EMC and 3mE, we decided to start a joint cardiovascular biomechanics research group.”

Number one killer

Cardiovascular events are the number one killer everywhere in the world, with the exception of Africa, and Akyildiz is interested in how such fatal events develop: “Atherosclerotic plaques, which are sites where fat accumulates in the arteries, are the trigger of many cardiovascular events. And there are two main mechanisms whereby an atherosclerotic plaque can lead to a cardiovascular event: one is that a plaque increases in size and the artery becomes narrower reducing the blood-flow. This is a very slow and gradual process and does not usually lead to fatal events. What does lead to fatal events is the second mechanism which we think has something to do with biomechanics because all of a sudden this plaque material ruptures and a blood clot forms right on top of it. So you might have a plaque occluding the artery by only 40% but with a blood clot on top of it, it’s suddenly completely occluded.” That’s why typically, reasons Akyildiz, a middle-aged person who plays tennis two or three times a week, all of a sudden has a fatal heart attack. “They might already have a lesion but show no symptoms because the artery was not completely blocked. But then if a rupture occurs, a blood clot forms blocking the artery and that can prove fatal.”

Fundamental biomechanics

The aim of the project then is to understand the fundamental biomechanics of these plaque ruptures: under what circumstances do these plaques rupture? Why do ruptures occur in some people and not others? And is it the mechanical or material properties of the arteries that cause some lesions to be weaker than the others? TU Delft’s role in the project, due to begin in March 2023, will involve building computational models which mimic what’s happening in the body.