Researchers develop new cardiac imaging tool to diagnose heart disease

A international group of scientists has demonstrated how MRI can be used to better diagnose heart disease without needles or chemical injections, according to research published in Science Translational Medicine.

The new method—cardiac functional MRI (cfMRI)—measures how the heart utilizes oxygen for both healthy patients and those with a form of heart disease. Researchers from Lawson Health Research Institute, University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles led the study.

"Our discovery shows that we can use MRI to study heart muscle activity," said Frank Prato, PhD, assistant director for imaging at Lawson, in a prepared statement. "We've been successful in using a pre-clinical model and now we are preparing to show this can be used to accurately detect heart disease in patients."

To determine how well a patient’s blood vessels are working, a breathing machine is used to change the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. In those with normal vessels the change typically causes an alteration in blood flow to the heart, but this doesn’t occur in patients with heart disease. The newly developed cfMRI technique can detect the presence of these changes.

Not only can the novel method provide insight into the disease earlier in its process, but, according to Prato, it is also safer than current methods which require an injection of radioactive chemicals or contrasts. The associated risks are small, but such invasive methods aren’t recommended for many patients, including those with poor kidneys.

The scientists noted cfMRI could also be used in other cardiac-related cases where heart blood flow is impacted, such as heart attacks or damages to the heart during cancer treatment.

"We've opened the door to a new era and totally novel way of doing cardiac stress testing to identify patients with ischemic heart disease" said co-author Rohan Dharmakumar, PhD, associate director of the Biomedical Imaging Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai. "This approach overcomes the limitations of all the current diagnostics-there would no longer be a need for injections or physical stress testing like running on treadmills."