For 10 years, Professor Tracie Barber and her team have worked closely with doctors, clinicians, nurses, and patients to ensure their research in vascular fluid dynamics was solving the right challenges.

Now, through collaboration with the Prince of Wales Hospital, a breakthrough in their research is enabling better treatment, fewer complications and less hospital visits for patients undergoing kidney failure dialysis. 

“When this idea first started, we literally walked into the dialysis unit at the hospital and asked to speak to a few nurses about the problems they were experiencing,” says Prof. Barber. “They mentioned a number of issues about needles, so we got to work.”

Traditionally, the way dialysis is delivered enables faster blood flow and therefore less time in the chair. However, it can also lead to a host of unwanted issues and side effects. 

“Because you’re doing this very abnormal thing to the blood flow, the veins often block up, get stenosis and fail,” explains Prof. Barber. “Dialysis patients are having to come back into hospital for emergency surgery, or they can’t have dialysis because the flow is blocked and you can’t put the needles in.”

Working closely with vascular surgeons A/Prof. Ramon Varcoe and Dr Shannon Thomas, Prof. Barber’s team started by considering whether they could help reduce negative impacts for patients undergoing treatment by changing the geometry of the surgery that opens the arterio-venous fistula, the irregular connection between an artery and a vein.

The research team used computational models and experimental work in the lab to determine a better geometry for treatment. This initially proved difficult to apply surgically but spurred the creation of a new solution.

The team realised the best way to change the geometry was by using a new type of stent called the Abbott “Supera”. While this new stent had not typically been used in such situations, “the clinical results definitely show that is has a positive impact,” says Prof. Barber.

The “Supera” stent has since been successfully used in over 100 patients and is now being used around the world as a new technique for helping dialysis patients. 

As more surgeons begin to adopt the new stenting techniques, Prof. Barber hopes that awareness of the work done at UNSW and Prince of Wales and the adoption of the research continues to grow. 

She says, “when I decided to move into the biomedical field, dialysis wasn’t really considered one of the ‘hot’ areas to look at despite there being so many problems. But it is so nice to know that we are now making an impact.” 

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