Research funding for ‘first of its kind’ heart scanner

24 November 2023

Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals will become the first in the world to use a powerful new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to develop and apply new heart scanning techniques using artificial intelligence.

Thanks to over £1.6 million in funding from the British Heart Foundation (BHF), researchers from our hospitals and Imperial College London aim to carry out a programme of work using the new scanner to support research into the relationship between the complex heart microstructure and how the heart works.

Diffusion MRI and artificial intelligence

Led by Professor Dudley Pennell, director of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance (CMR), the team have already carried out extensive research into the microstructure of the heart, revealing greater detail than was previously possible, using a cutting-edge scanning technique known as diffusion CMR, a type of MRI dedicated for the heart.

Diffusion CMR is a unique technique which reveals how the cells of the heart are arranged and depicts the full architecture of the heart muscle in exacting 3-dimensional detail.

In a first of its kind, the team plan to use the new scanner to combine diffusion technique, artificial intelligence and computer modelling to establish the relationship between the complex heart microstructure and how the heart contracts and pumps blood.

The programme will also look at how to apply new display techniques using holograms for immersive 3-dimensional visualisation with virtual reality.

The new imaging technique will be used in patients with heart attacks, congenital heart disease and cardiomyopathy and help identify new ways to assess the risk of these conditions. This will allow for clinicians to provide treatments at an earlier stage and prevent heart attacks and death.

Dr Sonia Nielles-Vallespin, head of CMR physics, and one of the researchers on the project, explained the importance of this project. She said:

“Diffusion CMR is the only non-invasive clinical tool capable of depicting human heart muscle microstructure in patients. These developments will enable unprecedented insights into the relationship between heart muscle microstructure and heart function, as well as the impact of microstructural changes in the presence of disease, improving diagnosis, prognosis and therapy management.”

Professor Pennell said:

“Diffusion CMR has potential to disrupt our understanding of how the heart works and to redefine the cardiology textbooks by combining cutting edge technology in CMR, AI and computer modelling. Better understanding of heart function will lead to improved patient healthcare.

“We are incredibly grateful to the BHF for the award of the 5 year Programme Grant.”

Funding was awarded through the BHF’s programme grant scheme which provides substantial long-term funding to leading research groups to address significant research challenges.

Dr Abigail Woodfin, senior research advisor at the BHF, said:
“We’re delighted to be funding researchers at the Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals to use this first-of-its-kind MRI scanner. By taking advantage of developing technologies, and harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, Professor Pennell’s research will help us to view and understand the heart in greater detail than ever before. This work has the potential [to] help doctors to spot the early warning signs of deadly heart problems, allowing them to step in and ensure patients receive the treatment they need, before it is too late.”

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