Andrew’s research is helping to unpick some of the uncertainty surrounding congenital heart disease, but the impact of the study goes even further. The UCL group use a technique called X-ray phase contrast imaging for their research.
This relatively non-destructive technique uses light waves to create an intricate picture of matter and its surroundings. At Diamond, the group are pushing the boundaries of what this technique can achieve, opening up new avenues for the study of human hearts.
This is not just exciting for early-stage medical research: it may also have applications in a clinical setting. If it’s further progressed, phase contrast imaging could help develop new ways of performing non-surgical diagnosis of heart defects.
At the moment, these things are impossible to properly see beyond a certain level of detail without surgery. We can detect heart defects using a range of techniques – from MRI scans to blood tests. At the foetal stage, ultrasound is often used to identify potential problems.
But it’s not always easy to scrutinise the exact problem with a patient’s heart without exposure to radiation. Although radionuclide tests do exist, the amount of radiation needs to be very small, meaning that the information clinicians get is not as detailed as it could be.
But phase contrast imaging uses less radiation than this test, and yet is capable of producing more in-depth information than ultrasound, MRI scanning and other techniques.
If we can further develop phase contrast imaging for use on human hearts – as Andrew and his team are currently doing – we may see it become widely used in clinical diagnosis to provide patients, expectant mothers and medical practitioners with more in-depth information on individual heart defects.
In the 1950s, only 2 of every 10 babies born with complex congenital heart defects made it to their first birthday. But thanks to the great work of scientists and charities like the British Heart Foundation, we now have 8 in 10 children with congenital heart disease surviving to adulthood.
With research like Andrew’s, that number will continue to increase, as more lives are saved and more hearts kept beating.