Scan could help prevent deadly heart failure in cancer patients

22 September 2017        

Category: Research

High-tech scanning techniques could reveal whether chemotherapy is damaging a person’s heart before any symptoms appear, according to research we've funded presented at the Global Cardio-oncology Summit in London.

A conventional MRI scanner

A common chemotherapy drug

Doxorubicin is a commonly used type of chemotherapy drug which slows or stops the growth of cancer cells by blocking an enzyme which cancer cells need to divide and grow. The drug is used to treat a wide variety of cancers including; breast cancer, ovarian cancer, bladder cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and has drastically improved survival rates from these diseases.

However, doxorubicin and other chemotherapy drugs can also cause heart failure, where the heart muscle is damaged and can’t pump blood around the body effectively.

Finding out before it's too late

Currently, there is no non-invasive way of establishing whether chemotherapy is affecting a person’s heart and symptoms, such as breathlessness, usually appear when the heart has already suffered significant damage. This means the damage is only discovered once a person is diagnosed with irreversible heart failure. 

Looking deep inside our heart cells

Now, researchers at the University of Oxford have found that, in rats, a type of imaging called hyperpolarised MRI can be used to see what’s happening deep inside the heart’s cells. 

If found to work in people, the scanning technique may make it possible for doctors to identify heart damage early and either change the person onto different chemotherapy drugs if possible or give them an extra drug that might have a protective effect.

The scans would allow doctors to see how the heart muscle cells are producing energy, a process which doxorubicin is thought to affect.

Stopping heart damage in its tracks

Our Medical Director, Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, said:
“To survive cancer, only to develop heart failure is a devastating reality for thousands of people in the UK.

“We know that some chemotherapy drugs cause heart failure. But right now doctors have limited ability to detect this early.

“By funding this research, we’re hoping to finally find a way to identify heart damage in its earliest stages and help to stop it in its tracks.”

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