Closer to the heart

Yoram Rudy studies the precursors to deadly cardiac arrhythmias

Yoram Rudy’s character has been shaped in part by war and a pioneering spirit he observed in his parents, who were among the first settlers of the new state of Israel, established in 1948.

From war — he served in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 as an officer in a tank unit — he learned the absurdity and futility of violence and the need to collaborate and rely on friends.

Yoram Rudy, Ph.D. (center), discusses his work with students Tom O'Hara and Lina El-Esber. Rudy has joint appointments in the departments of Cell biology, physiology, medicine, radiology and pediatrics, and he is the director of a new interdisciplinary entity, the Cardiac Bioelectricity and Arrhythmia Center.
Yoram Rudy, Ph.D. (center), discusses his work with students Tom O’Hara and Lina El-Esber. Rudy has joint appointments in the departments of Cell biology, physiology, medicine, radiology and pediatrics, and he is the director of a new interdisciplinary entity, the Cardiac Bioelectricity and Arrhythmia Center.

From his parents and their friends, founders of the new state — his parents came to what is now Israel in 1911, his father from Russia, his mother from Poland — he learned to strike out for new territory.

He has done that professionally by pioneering the applications of mathematics and physics to cardiac electrophysiology, beginning 30 years ago in an area few at the time thought practical.

Now, 32 years after he abruptly interrupted his doctoral research at Case Western Reserve University to serve in the Israeli army in the Yom Kippur War, Rudy is recognized internationally as a researcher with a wide support network who is continually making exciting breakthroughs in the understanding of the mechanics of cardiac electrophysiology and how electrical breakdowns in the heart lead to deadly cardiac arrhythmias.

He’s known also for taking a theoretical concept he developed and nurtured over decades and turning it into a novel medical device that can revolutionize heart care and diagnosis.

“To me, the need for war is unexplainable,” Rudy said in his Whitaker Hall office. “Disastrous things like war, tsunamis and the recent hurricane bring out the best and worst in people. The threat of war should bring the sides in conflict to the negotiating table before war actually occurs, because war is too terrible.

“My experience did teach me that I would not have survived in war as an individual. I valued the camaraderie, the unmatched closeness to one’s friends and people around you. Those were the good things I took from war, and I have found that close relationships and reliance and camaraderie also are important in my professional life.”

Rudy is the Fred Saigh Distinguished Professor of Engineering and came to Washington University in the fall of 2004, after 30 years at Case Western Reserve, both as a student and professor.

He has joint appointments in the departments of cell biology, physiology, medicine, radiology and pediatrics. He is director of a new interdisciplinary center, the Cardiac Bioelectricity and Arrhythmia Center (CBAC), through which he is continuing his research on the mechanisms of cardiac arrhythmias and how they lead to sudden death.

This fall marks the inaugural seminar series of the CBAC, featuring informal lectures and get-togethers on a weekly basis.

A native of Israel, he earned an undergraduate degree in physics in 1970 from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

He continued his studies at the Technion, conducting research in quantum mechanics (tunneling phenomena in superconductors), for which he earned a master’s degree in 1973.

“In high school, I really enjoyed the precision, abstraction and language of mathematics, and also its applications to the physical world,” said Rudy, who grew up in Tel Aviv. “I belonged to a math club and had a cohesive group of friends who had the same passion for mathematics that I had.

“I also belonged to a jazz club. Music is another passion; I began playing the piano at age five. In Israel, creativity is highly supported and encouraged. I’m grateful that I grew up in that kind of environment.”

Yoram Rudy and his wife, Hadas, with a geisha apprentice on a recent visit to Japan, one of Rudy’s favorite destinations.

Travel is another passion. In the summer of 1973, Rudy went on the road, traveling across America and camping in national parks.

He and his wife, Hadas, who arranges safari trips for Discover Africa, love to travel, and have developed friendships with people in many countries of the world.

“It’s a power of science to create friendships across cultures,” Rudy said.

“Hadas and I feel that the opportunity to learn about other cultures through visits with colleagues (turned friends) around the globe is a privilege of my work.”

During his graduate studies in physics at the Technion, Rudy developed an interest in the life sciences and, in particular, in the physics of living systems. In fall 1973, he joined the biomedical engineering doctoral program at Case Western Reserve University, where he conducted research in bioelectric phenomena under the guidance of Robert Plonsey, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field. Rudy earned a doctorate in 1978.

In 1980, he joined Case’s biomedical engineering faculty as assistant professor. He later became the M. Frank and Margaret C. Rudy Professor of Cardiac Bioelectricity, with appointments in the departments of Biomedical Engineering, Physiology and Biophysics, and of Medicine.

In 1994, he established the interdisciplinary Cardiac Bioelectricity Research and Training Center and became its director. The center included 32 faculty members from various departments in engineering, science and the medical school.

The concept has continued at Washington University in the form of the CBAC.

The largest killer of Americans is heart disease, claiming one million Americans annually.

Over 300,000 of these deaths are attributed to arrhythmias, 7 million worldwide.

Rudy has used a computational biology approach to study arrhythmias at various levels (ion channels, cell, multicellular tissue) of the cardiac system, and his laboratory also has developed detailed computer models of the workings of cardiac cells and their alteration by genetic mutations.

Until recently, heart specialists have not had noninvasive tools like MRI and CT to better understand the heart’s electrical function.

In work supported by a Merit Award from the NIH, Rudy has pioneered a novel, noninvasive imaging modality for cardiac electrophysiology and arrhythmias (Nature Medicine 2004; 10:422, and a basis for spurring a large feature on his work in The New York Times).

Yoram Rudy

Title: Fred Saigh Distinguished Professor of Engineering, with joint appointments in the departments of Cell Biology and Physiology, Medicine, Radiology and Pediatrics; director of a new interdisciplinary center, the Cardiac Bioelectricity and Arrhythmia Center, through which he is continuing his research on the mechanisms of cardiac arrhythmias and how they lead to sudden death. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Family: Hadas, wife; Hadas’ children are Daniel and Jaimie.

Education: Bachelor’s in physics, 1970 from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and master’s from there in quantum mechanics, 1973; Ph.D., biomedical engineering, Case Western Reserve University, 1978.

Interests: music, art, reading, travel, people, science

The new method, Electrocardiographic Imaging (ECGI), adds a much-needed clinical tool for the diagnosis and treatment of erratic heart rhythms; it also provides a noninvasive method for mechanistic studies of cardiac arrhythmias in humans.

Rudy’s technology, instead of using the conventional EKG, uses 250 electrodes in a vest a patient wears. This vest takes the equivalent of 250 EKGs simultaneously, getting electrical data from the entire torso.

At the same time, anatomical data that include the torso geometry and the shape and location of the heart are obtained via a CT scan.

Rudy finds joy in scientific discovery and reverence for the elegance of mathematical modeling.

“I’m able to indulge my work passions through collaborating with my graduate students — my scientific family — in the lab on a daily basis, which is a tremendous joy,” he said.

It was not easy to leave so much work and so many people behind at Case Western Reserve after creating a powerhouse laboratory and research agenda.

Rudy first was approached with the possibility of coming to Washington University over three years ago by his colleague and friend Jeffrey E. Saffitz, M.D., Ph.D., at that time the Paul E. and Ellen Lacy Professor of Pathology and Immunology in the School of Medicine.

By the fall of 2004, a full 22 people, including two other faculty members, staff, and graduate students, came along with Rudy to Washington University.

“It took two years to really warm up to the idea,” Rudy said.

“But I began to see that I had an intrinsic need for change. At Case, there was the comfort of the known, but often the unknown sparks creativity.

“I made the right choice. The environment here is attractive, I collaborate with researchers in a medical school that is second to none, and the biomedical engineering department, headed by my old friend, Frank Yin, is an exciting place with highly talented and creative young researchers and teachers.”

Rudy is fond of a quotation from the famed physicist Niels Bohr: It’s very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.

“I don’t think that either Frank Yin, who had been at Johns Hopkins for almost two decades before coming here, or I could ever have predicted that we would leave our established programs and come to a new place, but here we are,” Rudy said.

“It is a great University with thoughtful and supportive leadership, and I like to build — that was what gave me the final push.”