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From quantum physics to clinical devices: quantum imaging set to change the way that heart disease is diagnosed

A global issue
Heart disease accounts for 5% of all emergency visits – equating to around 20 million presentations to A&E departments or ER each year. On admittance to A&E, patients presenting with chest pains are presumed to have suffered a heart attack until proven otherwise. However, studies show that actually between 2% and 8% of patients are inappropriately discharged from emergency rooms with an undiagnosed heart attack. Major guidelines for patients reporting with chest pain are broadly the same, relying on a series of ‘rule in’ tests including electrocardiogram (ECG) and the measurement of a protein biomarker in a single, or series of, blood tests. This protein can take as long as 12 hours to be diagnostic, and it’s widely accepted that the longer a patient waits for treatment following the onset of chest pain, the worse their outcome can be. 

Impacting research
The new device developed by researchers in the School of Physics and Astronomy, in collaboration with, Quantum Imaging Ltd, a University spin-out company, could play an important role in changing all this. It can also help with the financial implications of people attending hospital thinking they are having a heart attack when they aren’t – this currently can cost a UK hospital in excess of £2,000 per patient.

Research led by Professor Ben Varcoe, Chair of Quantum Information Science at Leeds, has resulted in new and patented methodology to detect and record the magnetic physiological signals associated with electrical signals present in certain body tissues. This can help with the diagnosis of a range of potentially life threatening medical conditions, including heart attacks.

The device has sub-femtotesla sensitivity to magnetic fields, which can be used to create a magnetocardiography (MCG) device.  This records the local magnetic fields generated by a beating heart's electrical activity, allowing it to create a distinctive image of the heart, which can be used to diagnose the presence of cardiac disease. 

Early versions of this device relied on superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs), which meant that the devise could only be used in sheilded rooms.  Professor Varcoe’s team has now developed a portable magnetometer, which doesn’t rely on SQUIDs, allowing it to be used by clinicians in hospitals.  This new technology means that a diagnosis can be ready within hours.  This is a huge development as previously it could take days to diagnose cardiac disease.

Moving forward
The Leeds MCG is now undergoing initial clinical testing under Prof Mark Kearney at the Leeds General Infirmary.  So far, Professor Varcoe says, the device is working exactly as they want it to.  "From a fundamental physics beginning, we have developed a new medical device."    

Prof Varcoe and his colleagues have now created a new company, Quantum Imaging Ltd, a University of Leeds spin out, which has secured a £1.6 million investment to develop this medical imaging technology. The investment will be used to better understand the full diagnostic capabilities of the device.