Medical Discovery News
By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog

While a shrink ray like the kind used in science fiction is still stuck in the future, miniature devices are not. Tiny devices have been created to perform a variety of tasks, from an implantable telescope to improve vision in those with macular degeneration to the new pacemaker in clinical trials that is about the size of a large vitamin pill. Now, researchers have developed a catheter-based device smaller than the head of a pin that can provide real-time 3-D images of the heart, coronary arteries and other blood vessels. This is an important invention as the casualties of heart disease continue to rise. Statistically, 1 in 4 people will have a heart attack.

Many Americans are at risk for developing coronary artery disease due to the buildup of cholesterol and plaque. If there is a rupture or breakage of the plaque, creating a blood clot, that can result in a heart attack with little to no warning. Traditional diagnostic tests such as stress tests and echocardiograms show how much blood is flowing to the heart. If there are regions of the heart that are not getting as much blood as others, it might be a sign of clogged coronary arteries. However, blood flow can also appear to be normal even with plaque buildup.

Currently, there are a variety of methods that provide images of what is going on inside arteries, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), multi-detector computerized tomography (CT) scans and injecting an iodine-based contrast agent into arteries through a catheter. But all these look at the inside of the body from the outside, which is why this new device gives an unprecedented way of viewing the heart.

This invention combines ultrasound imaging with computer processors on a single chip only 1.4 millimeters wide. The body’s signals are processed on the chip then transmitted through 13 tiny cables to a computer monitor, so doctors have a visual of the heart and arteries. The prototype took 60 images per second using very little power, therefore generating little heat. This would allow cardiologists to take real-time images of blood vessels in and around the heart to more precisely determine the extent of blockages. These images also have much higher resolution compared to those taken with machines outside the body.

The next step is to conduct studies using the device on animals to determine its safety and efficacy and to develop potential applications of this technology. Eventually, this data will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration to gain permission to perform clinical trials on humans. Extensive testing will be required before the FDA will approve the device for general use. The developers, a group of engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, are also working to shrink the device even further to 0.4 millimeters so it can generate images of even smaller blood vessels.

Having clearer images of blood vessels would allow surgeons to have a more complete understanding of the blockage they are dealing with before they operate. Hopefully, future use of this device will prevent heart attacks and save many people’s lives.

Medical Discovery News is a weekly radio and print broadcast highlighting medical and scientific breakthroughs hosted by professor emeritus Norbert Herzog and professor David Niesel, biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.