Light-based innovation for the biosciences

Feel the beat: implanted microlasers scan heart from inside

It sounds like science fiction – but lasers beating to the rhythm of a live heart is exactly what researchers at the University of St Andrews have developed to improve the understanding of heart failure and to help develop more effective treatments.

Leading an interdisciplinary team of scientists, Dr Marcel Schubert and Professor Malte Gather of the School of Physics and Astronomy and Dr Samantha Pitt of the School of Medicine at the University of St Andrews, embedded tiny lasers into individual heart cells, and by analysing the light these lasers produce they monitored the contractions of the heart muscle.

The research, published in Nature Photonics today (Doi: 10.1038/s41566-020-0631-z) comes in the year in which the laser marks 60 years since it’s invention.

To check the function of the heart, doctors take a patient’s pulse, measure blood pressure, or take an electrocardiogram (ECG) which provides information on the function and the rhythm of the heart as a whole, but provides little information about what happens in the different parts of the heart.

Echocardiograms and other sophisticated methods can provide more local information, but further advances, in particular for treatments which explore stem cells or transplanted tissue, will require to follow the contractions of the individual cells forming the heart muscle.

Achieving this, at least in animal models routinely used to study critical heart conditions commonly seen in human patients, promises improved understanding and thus more effective treatment.

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