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Tuesday, 7 September, 1999, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
Computer 'improves heart care'
scan
The software identifies potential problems
Diagnosis and treatment for heart conditions could improve significantly in the coming years thanks to a software system that automatically analyses high-quality scans of the organ.

The development could give doctors fast access to detailed information about how the heart is functioning which they would not have been able to get previously without spending hours poring over images with a pencil.

It uses pictures from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, which produce extremely detailed images, are expensive and usually reserved for diagnosing brain and head injuries, and cancers.

One of the reasons the scanners are not used for diagnosing heart conditions is that it would simply take too long, but the new software could change that.

Time-saver

A team based at Edinburgh University and Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge developed the system, known as CAMRA - Cardiac Magnetic Resonance Image Analysis.

scanner
The system works with images from an MRI scan
Martin Graves, a clinical scientist at Addenbrooke's who played a senior role in developing the software, explained to BBC News Online how the system was better than older techniques.

"You use MRI to get images of the heart as it beats normally," he said.

"But if you want to get measurements of how much blood is leaving the heart, to get the volume, you need to go through all the images and manually draw the differences."

This was time-consuming and so many doctors would choose not to use the technique.

However, the CAMRA system reduced the time from a matter of hours to a matter of minutes.

"The idea of an MRI heart analysis becomes more reasonable."

In the past, angiograms have been the more usual method of diagnosing heart conditions, but they do carry some risks.

That technique involves inserting a fine tube, usually into an artery at the groin, usually under local anaesthetic, and passing it all the way to the blood vessels surrounding the heart, where dye is injected which will show up on X-rays.

Treatment improvements

The use of MRI heart analysis would allow more precise treatment and better follow up to establish if the treatment was working, and in the very long-term could help save lives, Mr Graves said, although the exact benefits would be difficult to predict.

scan
Camra automates analysis usually performed by doctors
"People haven't had these accurate scans before, so it's difficult to know what the benefits will be."

However, the technique opened a new door in research and time would reveal the full benefits of using MRI scans to diagnose heart conditions.

The British Heart Foundation said it had played a role in the development of MRI scans for heart diagnosis.

"The technique holds great potential in the diagnosis of coronary heart disease as well as additional safety benefits," a spokesman said.

"However, there still remains some way to go in terms of improving accuracy of the technique and for the moment an angiogram will remain the diagnostic tool of choice in the majority of cases."

A version of the software is available free to hospitals in Europe and is available on the Internet.

They will be displaying the product at the conference of the European Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine and Biology in Spain next week.

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