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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Measurements & testing projects > Picturing the heart of the matter
Graphic element Picturing the heart of the matter

The latest medical imaging technology, with its origins in the work of Nobel Prize winner Georges Charpak, has been used to develop a diagnostic camera that can visualise soft tissue with very high resolution and in real time. If all goes well, the camera should become an accepted part of every hospital's armoury against heart disease and brain tumours within a few years. Not only will this benefit patients, it also offers the prospect of reducing the amount of animal testing needed in the development of new drugs, a controversial issue of increasing public concern.

Diagnosing problems such as blocked coronary arteries, faulty valves inside the heart or abnormalities in other organs, has always been difficult because details of soft tissue do not show up well using most imaging techniques. X-rays only reveal hard structures such as bone, while sophisticated scanning methods such as computer tomography or magnetic resonance imaging provide only a freeze-frame image of the organ at one particular time.

Currently, physicians can either use invasive procedures that involve passing catheters into major blood vessels and then into the heart, or they can use a crystal camera and radioactive tracers. These are effective but unpleasant procedures that carry a significant risk and always involve a stay in hospital.

Visualising the heart

A camera that can look inside the body and give good images of the internal organs may have once belonged to the realms of cartoon animators, but is now well on its way to becoming reality.

With European partners, the French company Biospace, originally founded by Nobel Prize winner Georges Charpak to link physics research with biomedical applications, has been developing a gamma camera, a device that can visualise the activity of the heart in real time using low doses of radiation. The detector within the camera can measure ultra-low levels of radiation and uses the latest technology to convert the signals it receives into clear, real-time pictures. The heart can be tested both at rest and during exertion, without the need for catheterisation.

"When fully developed, the camera will give an accurate image of internal organs during a short, out-patient visit to the clinic," says Biospace's Marie Meynadier, who co-ordinated the research project set up to develop the camera commercially.

Developing a prototype

"The potential of the gamma camera is something we have known about for some time, but, as an SME, we needed to share research costs with like-minded partners," explains Ms Meynadier. "So, in combination with two SMEs from Britain and Italy, and French and Italian research bodies, we applied for, and were awarded, CRAFT funding. Working with our partners, we have now completed the first phase of the project. We have working prototype cameras that are ready for testing."

This crucial second phase of the project started at the beginning of 2000 and the partners expect to produce a fully tested prototype ready for full market development within the next three years.

The gamma camera uses the radioactive tracer tantalum, which has a very short half-life compared with current medical tracers and so is much safer. However, before the technology can progress to allow clinical trials to be completed, the tantalum tracer chemistry must be developed further and this is a key area of research in the on-going second phase of the project.

"The advantage of working in a partnership is that the individual skills of each partner company can be put to the best use possible," says Ms Meynadier. She confirms that the project has enabled technology transfer between the partners, all of which have extended their technical know-how. "Working together has allowed us to carry out a project that would have been impossible for any individual partner," she adds.

  Clinical trials underway

Production of the first prototype cameras during the first phase of development was co-ordinated by Biospace, but this role will now be taken over by Costruzioni Apparecchiature Elettroniche Nucleari (CAEN), the Italian microelectronics expert in the partnership. Hamilton & Hamilton the UK partner, will oversee the tantalum development work, which will take place in England and Italy.

In the next year or so, Biospace will co-ordinate clinical trials with an alternative, already commonly used radioactive tracer. Clinical trials in human volunteers started in April 2000.

"Clinical studies are essential, even before the tantalum tracer can be used, to show that the cameras can work in hospital conditions and that they are equal to or better than currently used diagnostic methods," explains Ms Meynadier.
The equipment will need to be very robust to cope with the demands of a busy hospital but several doctors in major European hospitals have already expressed serious interest in using the camera, not only for cardiac applications, but also to visualise the exact position of brain tumours before and after surgery.

  Smaller images, bigger markets

If the clinical trials go well, the market for the final camera could be substantial, but Biospace and its partners are also following up other applications of the gamma camera. These do not depend on human trials and could have a potentially even wider market.

"The resolution of the camera is extremely fine. So fine that it can resolve the much smaller structures within a rodent heart," says Ms Meynadier. This suggests that the camera would also be of value in small animal studies, such as those carried out by the pharmaceutical industry to assess the fate of new drugs in the living system. At the moment, the only way to do this is by using radioactive tracers and then dissecting animals at various times after dosing.

"There is a strong European movement to reduce the numbers of animals used in such tests," Ms Meynadier explains. "With some minor modifications, the gamma camera could follow the pathway of drugs without the need to sacrifice the animals."

Visualising the heart
Developing a prototype
Clinical trials underway
Smaller images, bigger markets

Key data

As part of the Measurements and testing generic action, this CRAFT project has developed a diagnostic camera which can visualise soft tissue with high resolution and in real time. The breakthrough will help in the battle against heart disease and brain tumours.

Project: Development of a detector for ultra-low radioactivity measurements in biological and medical fields such as cardiac imaging. (SMT4-CT96-5502)

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