Tomorrow night is the annual Service to America Medals gala. The Oscars for career federal employees. Dr. Paul Jablonski is a metallurgist with the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Albany, Oregon. He and his team have revolutionized coronary stent technology by developing a new platinum-chromium alloy that makes the device thinner, more flexible and visible by x-ray. Basically he is saving lives of patients suffering from clogged arteries.
Jablonski told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the work he and his colleagues do on a daily basis matters.
What is a metallurgist?
"A metallurgist is a solid state chemist. We deal with the chemistry and the attributes of metals and alloys. We try to figure out what it takes to make things last longer or do specialized applications," said Jablonski.
Why be a metallurgist?
"I’ve always had a knack for mechanical things and when I first went to college I was interested in an engineering degree. But I found it very difficult to choose which sort of specialization in engineering to pursue. As it turns out if you look at things, the materials are what is enabling technology for all the different technologies out there. That’s really what a metallurgist does, they develop the alloys that do the interesting things, the breakthrough things," said Jablonski
Jablonski was recognized for revolutionizing coronary stent technology. What is that?
"The coronary stent is the stent that is applied closest to the heart in the coronary arteries. As a person ages or if they have certain illness their arteries will not stay open or they will clog up, as a result you can starve the heart for blood. As you can imagine that is a life threatening condition. So what this new alloy does is hold these coronary arteries open, but because it has a greater radiopaque, that way the clinician is better able to place the stents in position and do his job much more efficiently," said Jablonski.
How did you come up with this?
"We originally started with an alloy with just a 5% platinum and it turned out that the alloy wasn’t radiopaque enough and what we ended up with was an alloy with 30% platinum. It didn’t just change the alloy’s ability to be seen on the X-rays it also made the material much stronger so you could end up with a thinner stent which means it is much more flexible. It is also very corrosion resistant," said Jablonski.
Why does being able to be seen by an X-ray matter?
"It turns out that in deploying the stents, the areas that need it most in a lot of times are really torturous. In other words it is not a straight region of the artery. So the result of that, is that physician will have to put in several stents to open up that passageway. You don’t want to put the stents right on top of each other because that would lead to a blockage in and of itself. You also don’t want to have the stents be far apart from each other. So it is really critical that the physician not only be able to see the stent that they are currently deploying but also the stent that was deployed just recently, so he can line them up," said Jablonski. "Stents themselves need to be very thin so they can be flexible enough to go through all the arteries. Since they are so thin the common alloys that have been used previously wouldn’t show up in a radiograph. So what the physicians were using was a little ball of gold at the end of the catheter, but once that stent was deployed they couldn’t see it at all. So the whole advantage of this new alloy is that you can see it after it has been deployed."
Why does the Energy Department do this?
"We have in our facilities a really unique environment that really can’t be done anywhere else in the world. We are able to do both our government research work and if there is a creative project that a company approaches us with, we are able to do that as well. By and large most of the large research facilities like the old General Electric and the AT&T labs are either closed or scaled back. So those facilities are not as available as they have been in the past. Since this is a government lab there really isn’t a worry about us trying to keep the technologies to ourselves," said Jablonski.
You can see all of our Sammies interview here.
*Photo credit to Sam Kittner/Kittner.com