Standing on the Shoulders of Science Fiction

BHF research inspired by fantasy

Humans have come a long way since 3-inch floppy disks and dial-up internet. We’ve upped our game so much that a recent survey suggested one in ten millennials would rather lose a finger than give up their smartphone. Love it or hate it, technology is all around us and it’s helping to improve our understanding and treatment of heart and circulatory diseases. Thanks to modern technology, what was once science fiction is now becoming science fact.

Stenting hearts

In the UK there are nearly 200,000 hospital visits each year due to heart attacks: that’s one every three minutes. A heart attack happens when there is a blockage in one or more of the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart. Most heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease — when these arteries become narrowed by a build-up of fatty material.

A test called a coronary angiogram allows doctors to look for these narrowed areas. If an area with severely reduced blood flow is found, they may insert a short wire-mesh tube, called a stent, to open up the artery. Since stents were first developed in the 1980s, their use has become routine. However, the decision to implant a stent is based on a clinical care team’s opinion, informed by their assessment of the angiogram and experience. But it can be difficult to choose the best position, size or number of stents to use.

Like something from a science fiction film, BHF-funded researcher Professor Julian Gunn and his team at the University of Sheffield are developing and testing a complex computer programme which uses angiogram images to calculate and compare the blood pressure and flow on either side of a blockage in the artery — and simulate how implanting a stent would affect this. In the future, the team hope that this tool could be used to help inform stent treatment decisions.

Healing hearts

Science fiction is full of miraculous self-healers, from the high school cheerleader in Heroes to Deadpool, Wolverine and the Terminator. But step out of the cinema screen (add your own futuristic sounds) and into the real world, and the BHF is funding scientists who are using stem cell therapy to try to find ways to repair the damaged heart.

Stem cells are cells that are able to turn into other types of cells — and can also release molecules which can kickstart the body’s repair processes. The hope is that in the future they could be used to heal organs, like the heart, after damage. The problem however is that, although research has shown that injecting stem cells into the heart can help repair heart tissue, injected stem cells don’t always remain active where the repair is needed.

Professor Ken Suzuki and his team at Queen Mary University of London have developed a technology to deliver stem cells to the heart using a material called hydrogel. They are continuing to develop this technique, with BHF funding, to hopefully pave the way for a clinical trial in people with heart failure.

So the cliffhanger for now is this: could stem cells truly mend broken hearts? Tune in to the future to find out.

Printing hearts

In 1964, British science fiction author Sir Arthur C Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) was the first to describe the basic functions of a 3D printer, more than 20 years ahead of the technology actually existing. While 3D printing is becoming part of the mainstream, scientists are now taking it to the next level.

BHF-funded researcher Professor Andrew Taylor and his team at University College London are hoping to transform the future of treatment for congenital heart disease. They are using cutting-edge imaging techniques to create detailed computer models of a living heart, and replicate it in a life-size 3D model.

The team is working with surgeons, children and their parents at Great Ormond Street Hospital to find out if using these replica hearts can help deliver more personalised treatment to babies and children born with congenital heart disease. For example, using a model to help explain their heart condition, or to allow surgical teams to plan and practice complex surgeries before they begin. While some people with heart disease have already benefited from this technology, it’s not yet available to all. But hopefully it’s only a matter of time…

Advances like this could help us continue to drive down the number of children born with congenital heart disease who don’t make their first birthday. In 1961, when the BHF was founded, only 2 in 10 children would have survived this condition. Today, that number is 8 in 10.

It’s like Isaac Newton once said, “if we have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, by building on the imagination and wonder of science fiction — fiction that is swiftly becoming fact.

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Standing on the Shoulders of Science Fiction was originally published in British Heart Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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