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Light-based technology could prevent unforeseen heart attacks

Posted on Thursday, February 06, 2014 · Volume: XLVII · Issue: 3


Jennifer Phipps, Ph.D., shows a model of a human heart and a computer image of her work with vulnerable plaque. She enjoys working with this technology because it combines her love of art, math and science with the potential of helping others. It also hits close to home: Her grandmother died of heart disease when Dr. Phipps was in high school. Click on photo to see a larger view
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Jennifer Phipps, Ph.D., shows a model of a human heart and a computer image of her work with vulnerable plaque. She enjoys working with this technology because it combines her love of art, math and science with the potential of helping others. It also hits close to home: Her grandmother died of heart disease when Dr. Phipps was in high school. Click on photo to see a larger viewclear graphic

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By Rosanne Fohn

Shedding light on plaque that causes unexpected heart attacks and strokes is the goal of Jennifer Phipps, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio.

Dr. Phipps is using light to help physicians see where “vulnerable plaque” is building up so they can help prevent and treat cardiac events.

No warning signs with vulnerable plaque
Vulnerable plaque is different from “stable plaque” that builds up inside arteries and causes symptoms like chest pain, breathlessness or numbness. Vulnerable plaque causes heart attacks and strokes without any warning signs. It is not easily seen by the current diagnostic technology that relies on dye injected into the coronary artery and viewed with X-ray to identify blockages.
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“Vulnerable plaque can be compared to a pimple that grows on the inside of the artery. As blood flows through the artery, it can cause vulnerable plaque to rupture like a pimple. The plaque debris then is exposed to the blood flowing into the artery and causes a clot that can result in a heart attack or stroke,” Dr. Phipps explained.

A biomedical engineer, Phipps is one of 12 UT Health Science Center researchers who together received $2,373,528 from the American Heart Association (AHA) in 2013.

Go Red for Women
February is American Heart Month, and the AHA Southwest Affiliate is hosting a number of activities to boost awareness of heart disease, and to raise funds for cardiovascular research. The Go Red for Women Summit held Friday, Feb. 7, brought women together to learn about heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death of U.S. women. It kills more women each year than all types of cancer combined. According to the AHA, heart disease also is the No. 1 killer of men and women combined in the U.S. and in the world. Stroke is the No. 4 cause of death in the U.S.

This image shows the difference between a normal artery (top) and arteries with stable plaque (bottom left) and vulnerable plaque (bottom middle). When vulnerable plaque ruptures (bottom right), the debris flows into the artery and can form a clot that can cause a heart attack or stroke. Click on images to see a larger view
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This image shows the difference between a normal artery (top) and arteries with stable plaque (bottom left) and vulnerable plaque (bottom middle). When vulnerable plaque ruptures (bottom right), the debris flows into the artery and can form a clot that can cause a heart attack or stroke. Click on images to see a larger view clear graphic

 

Using light to find vulnerable plaque
To addresses this, Dr. Phipps is working to refine a technology called optical coherence tomography (OCT), an intravascular technology that uses a catheter with a light attached to look inside arteries. She is mentored by Marc Feldman, M.D., professor of medicine and engineering in the Janey and Dolph Briscoe Division of Cardiology in the School of Medicine.

“Right now, the OCT image looks an unlabeled map of a place you’ve never been,” she said. “Doctors need to have the image interpreted so that they can see where the vulnerable plaque is.

"Since it’s hard to confirm the presence of vulnerable plaque in live patients, I’m building an electronic database of images from hearts in cadavers that have vulnerable plaque. We’ll use these images as a basis for computer programs that can then analyze OCT images in live patients. Eventually, the computer programs will be able to color code and label that map so doctors can better utilize OCT images for patient care." she said.

“I see this as the beginning of a 10- or 20-year project. This is a very high-resolution technology. It can help us identify vulnerable plaque, and in the future, help doctors learn how to prevent and treat it,” Dr. Phipps said.

HSC active in cardiovascular research, patient care and education
“The cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons at the Health Science Center are proud of our contributions of helping patients with heart disease in our community and the surrounding South Texas region by providing patient care, as well as conducting cardiovascular research, teaching students and helping to inform our community about how to live healthier lives to prevent heart attacks and strokes,” said Steven R. Bailey, M.D., FSCAI, FACC, FACP. Dr. Bailey is professor of medicine and radiology, chief of the Janey and Dolph Briscoe Division of Cardiology, endowed holder of the Janey Briscoe Distinguished Chair of Cardiovascular Research and the 2013 chair of AHA's Southwest Affiliate based in San Antonio.

John Calhoon, M.D., chair of cardiothoracic surgery and chair of the 2015 AHA HeartWalk added, “The Health Science Center is the regional leader in research, education and advanced treatment of heart disease. The research Dr. Phipps is conducting could easily translate into longer lives if we could predict and control when vulnerable plaque is going to rupture.”

Other Health Science Center researchers funded by the AHA in 2013 include:


 
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