Dr. Walid Ben Ali: building the interventional cardiac surgery of tomorrow

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A cardiac surgeon with an impressive backstory, Dr. Walid Ben Ali joined the Montreal Heart Institute in April 2021. Since then, he has been actively researching, creating, and perfecting tools that could revolutionize the world of cardiac surgery in the future.

An encounter with an innovation enthusiast!

From Tunisia to Montreal by way of France and Germany: a rich and varied medical journey

Originally from Tunisia, Dr. Walid Ben Ali studied cardiac surgery in his native country, then in Italy and France. In 2008, he landed in Montreal to pursue a fellowship program at the Montreal Heart Institute and at the CHU Sainte-Justine in pediatric cardiac surgery—the first chapter in his career as a doctor. When his wife received a job offer in the same city, the couple decided to settle in Montreal and start their family there.

“For my part, I had to redo part of my residency in cardiac surgery at the Université de Montréal so I could take my certification exam from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. I also obtained a doctorate in biomedical sciences at the same time. I then specialized in structural heart care in France with Dr. Thomas Modine, inventor and world leader in the field of transcatheter interventions. He became my mentor.”

His studies then led him to Germany where he worked in clinical research with the cardiologist Stephan von Bardeleben, a leader in transcatheter studies. Since April 2021, Dr. Ben Ali is officially back at the Montreal Heart Institute, armed with his expertise and new knowledge.

A pioneering researcher in interventional cardiac surgery

During a typical work week, Dr. Ben Ali usually divides his time between clinical work and research. In the clinic, he mainly performs transcatheter interventions, a skill to which he devoted his most recent years of training. On the research side, his work includes three main axes: simulation, development of new devices, and artificial intelligence.

Creating simulators

In collaboration with Biomodex, the Montreal Heart Institute is currently developing personalized beating-heart simulators (link in french). The goal? To predict the course and outcome of a complex procedure by first practising it on a simulator that reproduces a patient’s cardiac anatomy in 3D, including the movement of the valves. “It’s like if we were operating on a real human,” says Dr. Ben Ali, the originator of this innovative idea.

What makes this simulator so revolutionary? “Many patients who have a surgical aortic valve are too old to be operated on when their valve no longer works. A percutaneous valve is then placed in the old surgical valve, a procedure that carries the risk of coronary occlusion. Currently, imaging exams are used to assess the risks, and if these are deemed too high, the patient cannot undergo the procedure. But by first practising the procedure on the 3D-printed simulator, we can see if the risk is real and if there is a way to circumvent it, for example by correcting a simple movement. Finally, we see that patients who had been deemed unsuitable for surgery can be operated on after all!”

An important patient

This is the case with one lady whose life Dr. Ben Ali saved, his “patient number one,” as he calls her. “She was the first person we used this procedure on after proving with the simulator that everything worked. It’s still an important moment in the development of this simulator. At first it was an audacious study that no one believed in!” Since then, the simulator has continued to evolve and improve.

A passion for innovation

All these projects carried out at the same time would be enough to overwhelm many people, but Dr. Ben Ali taps into a bottomless source of energy: his passion for innovation. “I can go nights without sleeping because I have a new diagram in my head and it inspires me. Sometimes I wake up at 2 AM because I get an idea and I have to go draw it. It’s really inspiring!”

It’s also worth mentioning that with two engineers for parents, he was immersed in innovation from an early age. “That’s what attracted me to transcatheters; I saw that it was going to revolutionize our way of doing things. There’s still a lot of room to explore, innovate, and invent, and that keeps me really motivated.”

As if that weren’t enough, he is now considering adding an MBA to his collection, in order to understand the issues surrounding the creation of a new company. “There are many moving parts that you don’t know as a doctor, and you need that when you go talk to investors. That’ll be a challenge with my schedule, but I love learning!”

The Montreal Heart Institute: a turnkey location for research

For an inventor like Dr. Ben Ali, the Montreal Heart Institute offers an ideal work environment. “We have all the necessary resources and equipment at our fingertips, which allows us to keep moving forward in the creative process.”

The importance of the Montreal Heart Institute Foundation for research and innovation

The Foundation is an essential player in research within the Institute. “The simulation centre was built with the help of the Foundation, and thanks to everything they give us, whether financial support or equipment, we continue moving forward. If the level of research at the Montreal Heart Institute is so high, it’s in large part thanks to the Foundation and its donors. There’s no doubt about that.”

Would you like to contribute to the development of new technologies to improve cardiovascular care? Donate now to the Montreal Heart Institute Foundation.

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