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Groundbreaking physician delivers second Russ Prize lecture

Baylee Demuth, Marissa McDaid, and Colleen Carow | Sep 23, 2019
Simpson Lecture

Groundbreaking physician delivers second Russ Prize lecture

Baylee Demuth, Marissa McDaid, and Colleen Carow | Sep 23, 2019

Cardiology innovator John Simpson, one of five recipients of the 2019 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, shared personal stories with a healthy dose of wit last Monday during his talk as part of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology’s Stocker Lecture Series.

Addressing a healthy crowd of students, faculty, staff, and community members at Baker University Center’s theatre, Simpson told of making his way from rural Texas to eventually develop a coronary angioplasty catheter system with an independently steerable guidewire – a contribution that was essential in enabling selective and controlled catheterization of remote blood vessels while preventing inappropriate entry into collateral branches. 

The National Academy of Engineering and Ohio University honored Simpson and the other recipients in February with the Russ Prize – the largest bioengineering prize in the world – for innovations in coronary angioplasty, enabling minimally invasive treatment of heart disease.

“I feel like I’m still a country doctor, and I’m still a cowboy,” Simpson said.

Simpson, who is no stranger to Ohio, said a career turning point was being fired from his bank teller job at the Ohio National Bank in Upper Arlington, Ohio, soon after graduating from Ohio State University. The assistant of professional golfer Jack Nicklaus deposited his 1967 $30,000 U.S. Open winning check in Simpson’s teller cage – and Simpson promptly lost the check.

“I carried that check all around the bank, I misplaced it when I got back to my teller cage, and they didn’t find it for 10 days,” Simpson said, followed by laughter from the audience. “The manager told me I was not cut out to be a banker.”

A later pivotal moment: meeting German radiologist and cardiologist Andreas Greuntzig at a Stanford University talk in 1978. Simpson at first wasn’t keen on Greuntzig’s notion about blowing up a balloon in a patient’s coronary artery to treat vascular disease, but after visiting with Greuntzig, Simpson decided to pursue work with balloon angioplasty.

Simpson eventually contributed to a streamlined catheter with a moveable guidewire that enabled positioning inside an artery in a way that existing catheters had not. He demonstrated the technology via animations, sharing firsthand how optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging – which the 2017 Russ Prize recognized – allows physicians to see the catheter in action.

Biomedical engineering graduate student Morgan Homan was inspired by learning more about Simpson than just his professional career.

“I found that I had a lot in common in with Dr. Simpson,” Homan said. “It was fun and interesting to hear about his background and how he – more or less by accident – came up with the idea that made him famous.”

Simpson founded Avinger, Inc., a vascular disease technology company, in 2007, serving as its CEO and then executive chair before retiring in 2017. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas, and his M.D. from Duke University, completing his fellowship in interventional cardiology at Stanford University. He is currently focusing his efforts on the treatment of vascular disease through the development of new technologies combined with a new approach to optical imaging.