Life-saving imaging technology for baby hearts

Photo credit: geralt via pixabay

Congenital heart diseases is a general term for a range of birth defects that affect the function of the heart. Congenital heart diseases affect up to eight in every 1,000 babies born in the UK and have no single, obvious cause. They can be caused by infections, some medicines and can even occasionally run in families. If babies are only diagnosed after birth, vital time is lost in treating the condition, which often requires open-heart surgery to repair the defect.

A team at King’s College London and Guy’s and St Thomas’s have developed an innovative medical imaging technology to solve this problem. This new tool allows researchers to create highly detailed 3D images of baby hearts in the womb. The technology has the potential to improve the care of babies with congenital heart disease and can easily be adopted by hospitals.  

The novelty of this new technique is that it doesn’t involve any expensive new machinery. To begin the process of creating the 3D images, regular 2D scans are taken with an MRI machine. MRI images are nothing new. However, they are not particularly useful for detailed examination of foetal hearts because the rapid heartbeat of babies in the womb turns the 2D images into a fuzzy blur.

To counteract this, the team has developed sophisticated computer software capable of piecing the 2D images together. The software can adjust for the heartbeat to build an unprecedented 3D image of the heart. The result is a highly detailed image that can be used to diagnose abnormalities. Moreover, the technology can be quickly picked up by any hospital that already owns an MRI machine. The only additional requirement is a computer with a good graphics card to run the software. Because of the high cost of MRI scans, the technique can also be adapted for use with four ultrasound probes instead of the standard single probe scan.

The technology has now been tested on over 200 patients, and the research team is optimistic that the technology can quickly be adapted for regular use in diagnosis. Dr David Lloyd, a clinical research fellow at King’s College London, said, “Our hope is this approach will now become standard practice for the Evelina foetal cardiology team, who make a prenatal diagnosis in 400 babies each year. This will also improve the care of over 150 babies each year who deliver at St Thomas’s Hospital with known congenital heart disease.”

The research is part of the iFind project to increase the number of health problems picked up during standard pregnancy scans. The project seeks to further develop medical imaging technology for pregnant women to provide better outcomes for infants. They specifically aim to make these technologies accessible to all women, decreasing reliance on local expertise in diagnosing and treating critical health issues in babies. As it only relies on machinery most hospitals already possess, this heart imaging method is not only effective, but highly accessible.

Kirbi-Lea, whose baby girl Violet Vienna was diagnosed in utero with a narrowing of the aorta, said, “It’s amazing what they do, it’s lifesaving.” Violet-Vienna is now thriving at 11 months old.

This post was written by Miles Martin and edited by Ella Mercer.

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