New MRI technique can detect genetic condition that attacks the heart, brain and nerves

A genetic condition that attacks multiple organs and usually results in fatal heart problems can be detected using a new MRI technique that was developed at the University of Alberta. The discovery of this new diagnostic tool has resulted in updated clinical guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of Fabry disease in Canada.

Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry researchers Gavin Oudit and Richard Thompson worked with Faculty colleagues Kelvin Chow and Alicia Chan on the discovery, as well as Aneal Khan from the University of Calgary. The findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed journal, Circulation – Cardiovascular Imaging, and involved 31 Alberta patients who have the disease.

Thompson and trainee Chow developed the MRI technique known as T1 mapping which can detect heart damage and changes at early stages — earlier than regular MRI scans or ultrasound. When this type of MRI is used on patients with Fabry disease, the scans can detect both the disease and the severity of damage to the heart. The T1 mapping method developed by Thompson’s group can be easily programmed onto MRIs around the world.

“This test can uniquely identify Fabry disease by detecting microscopic changes in the heart muscle structure that are not visible on regular images,” says Thompson, who works in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “Fabry disease can look like other diseases if you only look at the whole heart structure or function, but this T1 mapping test, that can detect the tiniest changes in the heart, could identify all the patients with Fabry disease.”

Oudit added: “It is very likely that this technique will become a key part in clinical examination of patients with Fabry disease. This finding will advance the clinical care of these patients around the world. The implications will be widespread.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death for patients with Fabry disease. The earlier the disease can be pinpointed, the sooner treatment can start. The treatment for the disease halts the condition and prevents serious damage to the heart.”

New MRi technique can detect genetic condition that attacks the heart, brain and nerves Fabry disease is a genetic metabolic condition that destroys the enzyme involved in fat metabolism. This enzyme breaks down fat so without it, those with the disease accumulate deadly fat deposits in their heart, kidneys and brain. The condition affects 1 in 1,500 to 3,000 people, but was originally thought to be a rare disease. Some countries now screen newborns for the condition that costs $200,000 a year to treat through monthly infusions called enzyme replacement therapy. Symptoms of the disease include: heart failure, thickened walls of the heart, exercise intolerance, fluid buildup in the legs, blackouts, inability to lie down, strokes, tingling in the hands and feet, and changes in skin pigmentation.

It is estimated that about 1,000 Albertans are living with the disease but not everyone who has the condition has been diagnosed. Sometimes people will see scores of kidney and heart specialists for years before anyone diagnoses the condition. Men can have a blood test to identify the condition, while women - who may also carry the disease without showing symptoms - need to undergo genetic testing. The T1 mapping test can both pinpoint the disease and assess damage to the heart.

Oudit says the discovery of the new MRI technique “is a wonderful story of collaboration - of patients, clinicians, scientists and industry working together to find a new diagnostic tool.” Oudit is a heart failure specialist who works in the Division of Cardiology in the Department of Medicine at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute.

Researchers made a major breakthrough in understanding heart disease and heart attack risks, by identifying two new genes that could favor these cardiovascular problems.

The scientists from the British Heart Foundation have discovered two genes that could increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack – it is actually a piece of genetic code that increases some people’s risk of developing heart disease.

Also, it seems that another gene that is responsible for people’s blood group, is somehow connected to an increased risk of heart attack, in individuals who have already suffered from heart disease.

Before getting to these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data from the BHF funded ‘Family Heart Study.’

Twenty years ago, the British Heart Foundation sponsored two professors, to analyze the DNA of people affected by heart disease and their families.

Based on their findings and on data gathered from around the world, this new research has been able to identify genes linked to an increased risk of heart attack.

BHF Associate Medical Director Professor Jeremy Pearson says that “by studying a large number of patients where the extent of their coronary artery disease had been measured, this study identified one new gene that plays a role in how quickly heart disease develops.

“For the first time, they were also able to show that the blood group gene alters the risk of a heart attack in people with coronary artery disease, not by affecting the development of the disease but possibly by affecting the risk of blood clots forming on diseased arteries.

“The findings elegantly demonstrate that different mechanisms combine to trigger heart attacks.

“It reinforces that successful prevention requires us to consider both risk factors.”

“Data from the Family Heart Study has already helped us understand heart disease better,” added Professor Pearson.

“As an organization, we are excited to be part of these developments through the research from the University of Alberta,” says Mauro Chies, acting vice-president of clinical supports for Alberta Health Services. “This is a significant advancement in the detection of disease in a non-invasive environment for our patients. We hope to be able to advance these sequences on our MRIs in the near future, and look for ways to use it to evaluate and detect other disease conditions.”


Thompson and Oudit are continuing their research in this area, and are currently working with scientists in the United Kingdom.

The research was funded by the University Hospital Foundation and Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions. In addition, the project was done in collaboration with Siemens Canada Ltd. and Siemens Healthcare USA, Inc.

This research was funded, in part, through the University Hospital Foundation’s Medical Research Competition, which directs up to $500,000 annually to support 20 to 25 research projects. The competition is administered in partnership with the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

The Medical Research Competition is just one of many ways the University Hospital Foundation supports research. Over the past ten years, more than $4.5 million has been awarded to support 225 research projects. For many researchers, this support provides valuable seed funding that is leveraged to access national and international funding sources.


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