Cardiovascular Research Center Named in Honor of Distinguished Alumnus Dr. James Willerson


The University of Texas at Austin has named a top cardiovascular research center at the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES) in honor of internationally acclaimed cardiologist Dr. James Willerson. Willerson is a distinguished UT Austin alumnus, president emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute and former president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“Dr. Willerson’s impact on the lives of thousands of patients is incalculable,” said UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves. “The innovative research of the Willerson Center could not be more urgent as cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. The UT community looks forward to the center’s leadership in the fight against heart disease.”

The James T. Willerson Center for Cardiovascular Modeling and Simulation is directed by Michael Sacks, professor of biomedical engineering and holder W.A. Tex Moncrief, Jr. Endowment in Simulation-Based Engineering and Sciences - Endowed Chair No. 1, an internationally renowned expert in biomechanical engineering.

The center pursues both basic and applied research with the goal of transforming cardiovascular medicine by providing cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons with advanced modeling and simulation technologies that will promote the development of dramatically improved treatment and prevention strategies for cardiovascular disease.

“Jim Willerson is a living legend, not only in his home state of Texas, but internationally. He’s a doctor’s doctor,” said William McRaven, chancellor of The University of Texas System. “Wherever I have been in the world, somebody I’ve met has had their life, or their loved one’s life, literally saved by Dr. Willerson’s compassionate patient care or research findings. With the new Willerson Center at UT Austin, I have no doubt that the development of new technologies there will lead to extraordinary advancements in cardiovascular care.”

A ceremonial event in honor of Willerson and the naming of the center occurred on October 26, 2017. The event marked the successful completion of a $5 million campaign to provide funds to support doctoral candidates and postdoctoral researchers working at the Willerson Center. The campaign was completed in record time thanks to generous contributions from community members, including a $2 million gift from retired investment banker and philanthropist F. O’Neil “Neil” Griffin of Kerrville, Texas.

“It is a great honor for me to be associated with these world-recognized scientific researchers,” said Neil Griffin. “My hope is that this joint effort between Dr. Willerson and The University of Texas at Austin will make a major contribution to improve the health and happiness of mankind.”

Willerson’s relationship with ICES began more than five years ago as part of an ongoing research collaboration with the Texas Heart Institute (THI) in Houston to develop computationally driven, noninvasive means for detecting and treating vulnerable atherosclerotic plaques — fatty, necrotic deposits that form on heart artery walls that are prone to rupture and that cause 70 percent of fatal heart attacks in the U.S. Currently, there is no safe, reliable means for identifying or treating vulnerable plaques, so a successful effort to develop the technology to do so would fill a huge unmet clinical need that would save thousands of lives each year. Willerson said he hopes to begin clinical trials of this revolutionary technology in two to three years.

In addition, the Willerson Center will conduct research on a variety of innovative strategies for combating cardiovascular disease, including mitral valve repair and replacement, prevention of right ventricle failure due to pulmonary arterial hypertension, and regeneration of healthy heart tissue to repair damaged tissue incurred during myocardial infarction.

“We are extremely pleased to celebrate the naming of our Center for Cardiovascular Simulation in honor of a great cardiologist, scientist, friend, collaborator and visionary proponent of computational medicine,” said J. Tinsley Oden, ICES director. “Dr. Willerson and THI have worked with ICES scientists on the development of computational models and computer simulations that are transforming medicine. It is fitting that Dr. Willerson will be further recognized as a leader and visionary in this vital area of medical science.”

The work of the Willerson Center could not be more urgent as cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S, with more than 600,000 people dying each year. Coronary heart disease alone cost the United States more than $120 billion annually in health care services, medications and lost productivity. Worldwide, cardiovascular disease causes an estimated 17 million deaths each year.

“I love The University of Texas, and I am profoundly grateful to the individuals whose generosity made the center a reality,” said Dr. James Willerson. “I hope the center will continue to enable the brilliant faculty and scientists at UT Austin to make major strides in helping patients with heart and vascular disease. It has been a great honor for the Texas Heart Institute and UT Austin to collaborate on such important life-saving efforts.”