How Nobel Prize winners helped develop new ways of seeing hearts

9 October 2015        

Dr Danielle Paul

The 2015 Nobel Prizes are announced this week. Every day Christie Norris from our Research Communications team will look at how the work of previous Nobel Prize winners has influenced our research. Today she looks at how we can see inside the heart.

The heart is a complex and fascinating organ which drives our scientists to want to learn more. Examining heart muscle under a microscope helps our researchers understand how the heart functions and what goes wrong in some diseases. 

The work of 1986 Nobel Prize winners led to the creation of innovative microscopes which help our scientists contribute to cutting-edge research in heart regeneration as part of our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal, and surgical procedures.  

The electron microscope

Ernst Ruska was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for the design of the first electron microscope. This specialised equipment uses electrons instead of light to help scientists see cells and tissues clearly. 

Seeing heart muscle in 3D

BHF-funded scientist, Dr Danielle Paul at the University of Bristol, uses electron microscopes to analyse proteins in the heart. Dr Paul is interested in proteins which regulate the contraction and relaxation of the heart. Building upon the invention of the electron microscope by Ruska, we help fund new and improved microscopes in major universities including Bristol. Dr Paul can now visualise proteins clearly and investigate their function in normal and diseased hearts. She, alongside other BHF-funded colleagues, also uses the electron microscope to look at the structure of the zebrafish heart, which can regenerate itself after injury. The electron microscope can also be used to analyse materials used in valve replacement surgery

Artificial valves

There are four valves in the human heart. Each valve ensures blood travels in the correct direction through the chambers of the heart. If someone has a defective valve, blood can pool in the heart, causing problems.  A surgical solution to this defect is the insertion of an artificial valve. Artificial valves are specially-made and surgically implanted into patients with abnormal valves, returning normal blood flow to the heart and around the body. Thanks to the work of Ernst Ruska, our microscopes help scientists assess which synthetic materials are best to use for artificial valves.

Read Sam's story in our Heart Matters magazine

Talking about our new microscopes, Dr Paul said “There is a whole new breed of detectors for the microscopes and advances in the software. To be able to learn from that is great.” Without the Nobel Prize-winning work of Ernst Ruska, this innovative equipment which is crucial to our research would not exist.

Help us continue funding research to develop pioneering heart imaging techniques.