Eye test has heart issues in its sights

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A SIMPLE eye test being developed in the Capital could help save thousands of lives every year.

The pioneering study led by Edinburgh University is aiming to determine whether a scan of blood vessels in the eye can identify signs of heart disease.

More than 1000 patients with suspected heart disease are to be recruited into the study, which will see patients having high definition images taken of their retinas to check for signs – such as changes to blood vessel widths or unusually branched blood vessels – that may be linked to heart disease.

The study could find a way to identify whether a patient is at risk of heart disease without the need to carry out invasive procedures, such as biopsies or angiograms where catheters are used to identify vessel and organ damage.

The project is being led by Edinburgh University’s Clinical Research Imaging Centre (CRIC), and is a collaborative initiative with Dundee University, NHS Lothian’s Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion, NHS Tayside’s Ninewells Hospital and Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

Researchers will use specialist equipment on loan from Optos, a Dunfermline-based eye care company. The Optos study will also feed into a wider research project, involving more than 4000 patients, to see whether CT scans are a more efficient, cost effective and less invasive alternative to current procedures to detect heart disease.

Scotland has the highest death rate from heart disease in western Europe with more than 8000 people dying every year.

Dr Tom MacGillivray, a research fellow at Edinburgh University and manager of the Image Analysis laboratory in CRIC, said: “We know that problems in the eye are linked to conditions such as diabetes and that abnormalities in the eyes’ blood vessels can also indicate vascular problems in the brain.

“If we can identify early problems in the blood vessels in the eyes, we might potentially pinpoint signs of heart disease. This could help identify people who would benefit from early lifestyle changes and preventative therapies.”

He added: “Opticians tended to be looking for standard conditions such as diabetes and glaucoma, but we’ve invented something more advanced.

“One of the key things is we will have great images of blood vessels and be able to use new software tools to spot subtle changes which we can then quantify by computer.”

Welcoming the study, Margaret Watt, chairwoman of Scotland’s Patients Association, said the preventive role which opticians could play in healthcare was often overlooked.