Tiny tech goes to the heart of disease

Tiny tech

As our leading single cause of disease and death, it would be rare for any Australian not to have been touched by coronary heart disease amongst family or friends.

In Australia, 157 people are hospitalised every day due to heart attacks. Around one in 10 of these people are likely to be readmitted for a second attack within a year.

Diagnosing the risk of a secondary attach has proven difficult, until a recent technology breakthrough from The University of Adelaide.

While an endoscope can help assess atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries after the initial attack, cardio specialists have faced challenges as it hasn’t been possible to produce high quality lenses at the micro sizes needed for detection.

With help from the researchers from The University of Adelaide, a team from the ARC Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) has succeeded in developing the world’s tiniest endoscope.

Lead researcher Dr Jiawen Li from the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at The University of Adelaide, says that the endoscope will help clinicians better understand the causes and progression of heart disease.

"This new technology can be used to take 3D scans of atherosclerotic plaques inside blood vessel walls," Dr Li says. "These are a common cause of heart attacks."

At the heart of this breakthrough in endoscope technology is a tiny 3D-printed lens on the end of an optical fibre around 0.1 millimetre wide. Shielded in a protective catheter sheath they can safely fit inside a narrow artery.

"These miniaturised endoscopes, which act like tiny cameras, allow doctors to see how these plaques form and explore new ways to treat them," explains Dr Li.

Dr Simon Thiele, Group Leader, Optical Design and Simulation at the University of Stuttgart, was responsible for fabricating the tiny lens.

"Using 3D micro-printing, we are able to print complicated lenses that are too small to see with the naked eye," Dr Thiele said, “this is the first-time such high-quality endoscopes have been able to me made this small."

What’s next?

This technology will enable researchers to unravel fundamental biological processes within the living body in a minimal invasive way.

“It allows cross-sectional visualisation of plaques inside blood vessel walls with high resolution, molecular contrast, and sensitivity that are not possible with any other existing technologies,” explains Dr Li.

This work will underpin biological studies to help answer fundamental questions at the cellular level of how plaques evolve, how they cause heart attacks, and how they respond to different treatment.


Image credit: Florian Sterl 

Tagged in Health and biotech, health, heart disease, featured