Researcher Creates New Diagnostic To Help Prevent Stroke
Imagine the possibility of being able to predict the future.
With a new clinical tool created by University of Michigan researcher Jimo Borjigin and her team, some doctors might be able to prevent the fifth leading cause of death and the leading cause of serious long-term disability in the United States: stroke.
Nearly 800,000 people in the country have a stroke every year, with about three in four being first-time strokes. Borjigin, an associate professor in the U-M Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and the Department of Neurology, is aiming to prevent future stroke in these patients with her IT tool, the Electrocardiomatrix (ECM).
This tool evaluates electrocardiography (ECG) signals for early and accurate detection of atrial fibrillation (AF), an irregular heartbeat that can cause blood clots and result in stroke. This diagnostic analyzes data collected during a patient’s hospitalization rather than during long-term telemetric ECG monitoring, which is costly and can take months to complete. The ECM-based analysis is unique in that it is performed using ECG data strictly during a patient’s stay at the hospital – not long-term using event monitors – and it has AF detection accuracy as good as manual detection by doctors.
“We are trying to analyze how the brain talks to the heart,” Borjigin said. “The ECM is very useful for this correlation.”
The Borjigin team, which includes an engineer, two stroke neurologists, and a cardiologist, is optimistic that the use of ECM technology in hospitals will promote early and accurate AF detection, prevent future stroke in patients, and help avoid the costs of conducting continuous ECG telemetry. The project, funded by the U-M Translational Research and Commercialization (MTRAC) for Life Sciences Innovation Hub, is in the early stages of clinical trials at U-M in Ann Arbor.
“ECM technology is predicted to significantly transform how AFs and other cardiac arrhythmias are detected for both inpatients and outpatients,” Borjigin said in a MTRAC flyer highlighting this research project. “In the long term, ECM will enable more precise diagnosis of heart disease, and will provide more efficient real-time arrhythmia detection to permit timely clinical decisions to be made in the OR, ER, or ICU.”
Before delving into the world of biomedical innovation, Borjigin’s passion for all-things science started with just a book.
As a 12-year old growing up in Hohhot, China, she said her father, a historian at a local university, read her the book Madam Curie, a biography about Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist who won two Nobel Prizes for her work in radiation and radioactivity.
“[It was a story] of hope and desire,” she said. “It made me feel like women can achieve so much.”
This ignited a spark and before she knew it, an opportunity came knocking when the Chinese government offered a chance for some students to further their education beyond its borders.
“I was in China during the revolution [in the ‘80s], and they opened up the country for students to go to other schools outside the country,” Borjigin said.
She said she was one of 100 students sent to Japan to attend school, part of an initiative to have a highly education young Chinese population who would study outside of the country and return upon graduation to start their careers.
Borjigin went on to receive her Bachelor of Science in physics and Master of Science in biophysics at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan.
But while her foray into science began with physics, it later segued into neuroscience. All it took was the study of photoreceptors– specialized cells found in retina that convert light—to jumpstart her interest in the brain. She later completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience in 1994 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., and after doing her postdoctoral training, Borjigin worked at the Department of Embryology of the Carnegie Institute of Washington from 1998-2003. U-M became her home in 2003.
Fast-forward 14 years later, and her neurological research continues. Now, in addition to her continued research with the ECM technology, she is focused on how circadian rhythms are generated, the basic properties of circadian timing and how jet lag, shift work and light at night impact general health.
For Borjigin, being a researcher means making a difference and discovering things that, at some point, could impact patients in a big way.
“[I enjoy] discovery, new knowledge and creating something that benefits human health,” she said. “If you discover a new way of treatment, the number of people you can help is tremendous.”
And while she has high hopes that her biomedical innovation, the ECM, will have a major effect in the clinical setting, she didn’t think it would go very far in the early developmental stages.
“When I started approaching cardiologists [about this technology] back a few years ago, I was ignored,” Borjigin said. “I could’ve been discouraged, but I just imagined that so many people could benefit from this, so I continued and convinced more and more people.”
Now, after many years of development and research, she is now in the middle of clinical trials and has realized it was all worth it—something that she hopes other new scientists learn.
“Be persistent and don’t give up easily,” she said. “Nothing is too difficult and if you try hard, you can do it.”