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MRI scans promise early heart failure detection in women, British study finds

British researchers said they have developed a new method to use MRI to detect heart failure in women. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
British researchers said they have developed a new method to use MRI to detect heart failure in women. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

May 15 (UPI) -- British researchers said Wednesday that they have developed a new way of using Magnetic Resonance Imaging to detect heart failure in women that will boost early diagnosis rates, allowing more to receive life-saving treatment at an earlier stage than they would have otherwise.

A team from the University of East Anglia, Sheffield University and Leeds University was able to pick up many more heart failures in females, which manifest differently than in men, by fine-tuning the non-invasive technique to make it more accurate, UEA said in a news release.

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"By refining the method for women specifically, we were able to diagnose 16.5% more females with heart failure. This improved method will increase early detection, meaning more women can get life-saving treatment sooner," said lead author Dr. Pankaj Garg of UEA Norwich Medical School and a consultant cardiologist at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

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The research, published in the European Heart Journal Open, could have major implications for Britain's National Health Service which diagnoses around 200,000 patients with heart failure each year, according to Garg.

The technique uses MRI to measure how well the heart is able to relax and refill with blood -- the type of impairment most common among women -- as opposed to the standard approach of looking for a tell-rise in pressure in the heart due to its inability to fully empty out blood with each beat.

"Women's hearts are biologically different to men's," said co-author Professor Andy Swift of the University of Sheffield's School of Medicine and Population Health.

"Our work suggests that in heart failure women's hearts may respond differently in response to increases in pressure."

Heart failure is normally classified by the heart's "ejection fraction" -- the volume of blood squeezed out of the main chamber of the heart with every beat -- but in the type of heart failure disproportionately affecting women, it is the heart's ability to relax and fill with blood that is impaired while its pumping ability appears normal.

UEA and Sheffield University first published research showing how MRI could be used to detect heart failure in 2022, using an equation to derive pressure readings from the scan.

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Dissatisfied with the accuracy of the technique in diagnosing heart failure in women, especially in early or borderline disease, the team set out to improve on it by adapting the method specifically for women.

"Currently one of the best ways of diagnosing heart failure is to measure pressures inside the heart with a tube called a catheter. While this is very accurate, it is an invasive procedure, and therefore carries risks for patients, which limits its use," explained co-author Dr. Gareth Matthews of UEA Norwich Medical School.

"For this reason, doctors tend to use echocardiograms, which are based on ultrasound, to assess heart function, but this is inaccurate in up to 50% of cases. Using MRI, we can get much more accurate images of how the heart is working."

The team said that given echocardiography's poor track record of diagnosing this type of heart failure they hoped gains in diagnosis from their work would enable more women to be diagnosed more accurately and create a pipeline for better treatments.

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"The symptoms of heart failure, like breathlessness and fatigue, can have a devastating effect on patients' quality of life. We are increasingly recognizing the importance of early diagnosis and, early treatment can improve symptoms and life expectancy," said co-author Dr. Peter Swoboda of University of Leeds Faculty of Medicine and Health.

"This research will help diagnose heart failure in women more quickly and get them established on life-saving treatments sooner."

Health and Social Care Secretary Victoria Atkins said the research, which was government funded, showed the importance of developing sex-specific health care.

"Heart failure is a devastating condition affecting hundreds of thousands of women in the U.K., so this research is a hugely positive development that could make it possible for thousands of people to get diagnosed and treated at an earlier stage.

"For the second year of our Women's Health Strategy for England, I have been clear that we need more research to look at the differences between how conditions affect men and women," said Atkins.

"I am delighted that this government-backed research has met this challenge so that we can get life-saving treatment to women faster."

The National Heart Research Institute Singapore, Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, Queen Mary University of London, the National Institute for Health and Care Research's Sheffield Biomedical Research Center, the University of Amsterdam and Turkey's Kocaeli City Hospital also collaborated on the study.

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The project was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research Sheffield Biomedical Research Center, the Wellcome Trust and the National Medical Research Council.

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