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A powerful new heart scanner to improve the treatment of heart disease has been installed at the Oxford Centre for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, thanks to a £1m grant from the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

© Martin Phelps

The state-of-the-art device will enable scientists to create detailed images of the heart, allowing them to learn more about its structure and function. While the scanner is just over 2 metres long, it weighs over 13 tonnes – the equivalent of 11 Mini Cooper cars. A special crane had to be used in order to unload the equipment after it was delivered.

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, works by creating a strong magnetic field. This causes protons, tiny particles within the body, to line-up in the same direction. Radio frequencies are then used to briefly knock the protons out of alignment. By measuring differences in how protons return to position, scientists are able to build up detailed pictures of the heart and its structures.

The University of Oxford Centre for Clinical Magnetic Resonance Research is one of the leading centres of cardiovascular imaging in the world. The centre already has two powerful MRI scanners, but the new Siemens 3T Prisma is capable of producing higher resolution images. The additional machine will also boost capacity and enable more imaging work to be done.

The new equipment will help scientists working at the university to improve the treatment, diagnosis and care of heart disease.  One of the projects set to benefit is investigating hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), an inherited heart condition which causes the heart muscle to become thickened. This process can cause breathlessness, tiredness and in the most serious cases, heart failure, life-threatening heart rhythms and sudden death.

Researchers will use the new scanner to observe in greater detail changes to the heart caused by the condition. The scientists’ aim is to determine predictors that will allow those most at risk of serious complications to be identified and receive the right treatment.

Prof Stefan Neubauer, Head of OCMR, said: “Advances in MRI imaging are opening up incredible new possibilities for scientific discovery.

“Fifty years ago, the only images that we could take of the heart were x-rays which were useful, but limited. Now we’re able to take highly sophisticated images of the beating heart and examine it in much greater detail.

“Getting a clear view of the heart and blood vessels is vital to furthering our understanding of the causes of heart disease, and how we can improve its treatment and prevention.”

Dr Shannon Amoils, Senior Research Adviser at the BHF, said: “The University of Oxford is a world leading centre of heart research, so it is crucial that we give their scientists the tools they need.

“Funding investments like this is a vital part of making discoveries happen and turning them into medical advances that transform and save lives.

“We’ve only been able to make this important investment because of the fantastic generosity of the public. We rely on their support to drive forward research programmes to keep the nation’s hearts healthy and prevent the tragic loss of life.”

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) causes more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK. Each day, around 500 will go to hospital with a heart attack and there are around 7 million people living with CVD. The BHF is the leading independent funder of heart research in the UK.