University of Texas at Austin


Deciphering Heart Disease - Profile Michael Sacks

By Rebecca Riley, Maria Stanzione

Published March 15, 2024

Michael Sacks

As the most common heart valve disease, regurgitation of the mitral heart valve, affects hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world each year and requires surgical repair. While a repair procedure may be successful for one patient, another may not fare as well and require additional procedures with increased risk or even perish without additional treatment. It remains largely unknown why certain patients undergoing mitral heart valve repair do well and others do not. Extensive clinical trials are still unable to solve this problem. So, what can be done?

Michael Sacks and his collaborators are answering that question through the development of patient specific physics-based computational models of mitral heart valves.

“We can now create a patient specific computational model of the mitral heart valve directly from clinical imaging to allow the immediate investigation of different ways clinicians can perform a particular surgical procedure,” said Sacks, Director of the Willerson Center for Cardiovascular Modeling and Simulation at the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. “The idea is to utilize these new methods so that the clinician can rapidly explore multiple scenarios on a computer and identify the optimal one before they go into the operating room.”


Since he was nineteen years old, working on the biomechanical function of the human body has been the focus of Sacks’ career. It began when he was awarded a summer undergraduate mechanics research fellowship to work on modeling the mechanical behaviors of spinal ligaments. Sacks continued this project as an undergraduate research assistant, stayed for his master's degree, then continued work on modeling the mechanical behavior of biological tissues for several years before pursuing his Ph.D.

Sacks worked on his Ph.D. with Dr. Cheng-Jen Chuong, a student of the “Father of Modern Biomechanics,” Dr. Yuan-Cheng Fung. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. It really captured my imagination and was a fantastic learning environment; they treated me like a fellow research partner. In fact, part of the reason why I ended up going into academia was because that experience was so positive,” said Sacks.

Now, as the Director of the Willerson Center, he trains a new generation of researchers, giving them the same extensive experience he enjoyed. Researchers at the Center include post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate research assistants from multiple scientific and mathematical disciplines.

On a personal side, in the 35 years since his introduction to computational heart research, Michael Sacks met and married his wife, a classical music composer. Together, they raised three children and saw each of them graduate from UT Austin. 

When he’s not teaching or coding, Sacks enjoys listening to classical Western and Indian music, as well as jazz. He also enjoys amateur photography and lugging his telescope out to the Texas Hill Country to stargaze with the Austin Astronomy Society. 

Since completion of his doctorate, Sacks has seen the runtime of complex computational heart models reduce from taking weeks to mere hours. “Our current work is very promising, as researchers in the Willerson Center can now predict post-operative states very accurately. Moreover, with the progress made in clinical imaging technologies, we can create very high-fidelity patient specific model.” Yet to make a direct clinical impact, current computational methods are still not nearly fast enough. Willerson Center researchers are currently working on new cutting edge computational methods to dramatically speed up computations. Sacks states, “We are currently working on a big step forward in developing new methods for these simulations into something a clinician could use in a matter of hours to make important clinical daily decisions.”