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The art of hearts

Scientists at the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh won the British Heart Foundation’s Reflections of Research image competition last month. MRC Science Writer Isabel Baker looks at the picture, created with a technique invented by an MRC scientist.

(Image copyright: Dr Gillian Gray, Megan Swim and Harris Morrison/University of Edinburgh/The British Heart Foundation)

(Image copyright: Dr Gillian Gray, Megan Swim and Harris Morrison/University of Edinburgh/The British Heart Foundation)

It looks more like something that you might find hanging in a modern art gallery than an image produced by one of the most advanced scientific imaging techniques.

But rather than a paintbrush, Dr Gillian Gray and Megan Swim from the Queen’s Medical Research Institute*, and Harris Morrison from the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, created this stunningly detailed image of a mouse heart using a technique called Optical Projection Tomography (OPT).

OPT was invented in 2001 at the MRC Human Genetics Unit by MRC molecular and developmental biologist Dr James Sharpe. It closed an important gap in three-dimensional imaging: before then 3D images could be obtained of tiny objects (less than a millimetre) and human bodies, but not objects of around a centimetre.

It uses light microscopy to take multiple images of a specimen at different angles, and then uses software to create a 3D image. James gives a nice explanation of the technique in this video made by the Wellcome Trust.

The team in Edinburgh are using OPT to measure the damage caused by a heart attack in mice. This is helping them to understand how a heart attack leads to heart failure, where the damaged heart is weaker and less able to pump blood.

“When you have a heart attack it causes damage to the heart muscle, which, in the long term, can lead to heart failure. The pioneering technique we used to create our image ‘The Broken Heart’ helps us to investigate how the heart heals after a heart attack. By using this approach, we hope to learn how to limit the damage from a heart attack and reduce the chance of developing heart failure,” says Gillian Gray.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) and other types of heart failure are the UK’s biggest killers. According to the BHF, in 2010 almost 180,000 people died from cardiovascular diseases, around 80,000 of these deaths being from CHD. Heart failure is also a leading cause of disability.

Isabel Baker

The team also produced a video, The Healing Heart, which was highly commended by the judges, and shows what happens in a mouse heart after a heart attack in vivid detail.

All of the winning images and videos from ‘Reflections of Research’ can be viewed online

*This article was amended on 9 September 2013 to reflect that Gillian Gray and Megan Swim work at the Queen’s Medical Research Institute.

 

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