Feature: New methods of cardiac detection and treatment 'could show promising future'

23 December 2011

The most common ways of detecting heart problems are currently electrocardiograms and x-rays, but according to new research, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans could be the best way of spotting signs of cardiac failure early.

A study carried out by scientists at the University of Leeds found that MRI was the most successful method of detecting heart disease in comparison to the standard checks mostly used in healthcare and cardiology departments.

Dr John Greenwood, who led the study at the university, said: "We have shown convincingly that of the options available to doctors in diagnosing coronary heart disease, MRI is better than the more commonly-used single-photon emission computed tomography imaging test.

"As well as being more accurate, it has the advantage of not using any ionising radiation, sparing patients and health professionals from unnecessary exposure."

The researchers looked at 750 people with suspected heart disease and found that not only was MRI more accurate at detecting problems, it was also non-invasive and did not use radiation.

A spokesperson from the British Heart Foundation, which funded the research, showed support for the new discovery, which could revolutionise the way that suspected cardiac patients are first treated.

Prof Greenwood continued: "At present, not all hospitals have the expertise to undertake such scans but these findings provide clear evidence that MRI should be more widely used in the future."

MRI scans work by using strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inner parts of the human body, including clear diagrams of the heart.

Despite advances in modern medicine, management of myocardial infarction and heart failure remains a major challenge, according to one expert.

Dr Tao P Zhong from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, who authored a study into how tissue in the heart could mend itself, said: "There is intense interest in developing agents that can influence stem cells to differentiate into cardiac cells as well as enhance the inherent regenerative capacities of the heart. Developing therapies that can stimulate heart muscle regeneration in areas of infarction would have enormous medical impact."

The study published by Cell Press in the December 21st issue of the journal Chemistry & Biology looked at a zebrafish model system to identify a family of molecules that can stimulate stem cells to develop into beating heart muscle cells.

Although damaged heart tissue is not known for having the capacity to repair itself, the study has suggested that signals have been revealed to show otherwise. The findings could go towards developing a new method for cardiac repair and regeneration.

Dr Zhong noted that the zebrafish model is good for studying heart growth and monitoring how tissues develop and change.

He concluded: "This may ultimately aid in design of therapeutic approaches to enhance repopulation of damaged heart muscle and restore function in diseased hearts."

Commenting on the tissue research, Prof Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said that the Chinese scientists had given an important glimpse of what might be possible for future heart failure patients.

He mentioned that the work could be later developed and modified for drug creation to mend "broken" hearts and help people with debilitating heart failure.

Posted by Jeanette Royston

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