Researchers Receive $300,000 Award to Advance Technology With Potential to Predict Heart Attacks

A University of Texas at Austin engineering professor and a cardiologist from UT Medicine San Antonio have received a $300,000 award to develop a new imaging technique with the potential to predict, or even prevent, heart attacks.

Biomedical engineering Professor Thomas E. Milner of the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, and his longstanding collaborator Dr. Marc D. Feldman will serve as investigators for the Houston-based Clayton Foundation for Research and receive its ongoing support.

Milner and Feldman are at the forefront of bringing an imaging technique known as Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) into the practice of cardiology. Their current goal is to refine the technology so it can identify one more hallmark of a plaque vulnerable to rupturing within blood vessels. Ruptures of these fatty deposits are the most common cause of heart attacks and strokes, leading causes of death worldwide.

OCT, initially developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s, harnesses light waves instead of the sound waves, magnetic fields and radiation now used to image cardiovascular disease. OCT has far greater sensitivity, specificity and resolution than any of those techniques, with none of the harmful effects of radiation.

The OCT technique created by University of Texas System collaborators currently can detect two of three classic features of a plaque that is vulnerable to rupture: thinning of the tissue layer or "fibrous cap" that covers the plaque's core, and an especially large collection of lipids beneath that cap.

"OCT is one of the most promising and exciting medical imaging technologies available today," Milner said. "The detail of information OCT can provide is simply astonishing and will continue to impact not only cardiology but other medical disciplines, such as ophthalmology."

Although the ability to predict heart attacks accurately is still the long-term goal, a more imminent use for OCT might be determining whether the cells lining the walls of blood vessels have sufficiently repaired themselves after a drug-eluting stent is inserted. When this does not happen, patients are thought to be at risk for clots that obstruct the flow of blood and ultimately cause heart attacks. OCT can see this; ultrasound cannot.

The Clayton Foundation's investment will allow researchers to tackle the third and final key characteristic of vulnerable plaques: an increase in the number of "macrophages," or scavenger cells that digest pathogens and cellular debris. Macrophages have been shown to weaken the fibrous cap.

Milner and Feldman's research project is one of six new medical research programs being established by the Clayton Foundation in Texas in 2012. The Clayton Foundation and its supporting organization, the Foundation for Research, have supported medical research within The University of Texas System since 1933.

"The Clayton Foundation allows its investigators wider latitude in their research than traditional grant-funding agencies," said Feldman, who sees patients through UT Medicine San Antonio. "As a result, rather than focusing on research that will lead to the next funded grant application, investigators can focus on what is most exciting and most likely to impact patient care."