Breakthrough heart scan leads to early diagnosis

Due to its unprecedented sensitivity to magnetic fluctuations, a prototype magnetometer could greatly improve the diagnosis of cardiac conditions.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
The prototype magnetometer Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Magnetometers are typically associated with large-scale projects such as digging for oil, locating submerged objects, and detecting archaeological sites from spacecraft. But now, with unprecedented sensitivity to magnetic fluctuations, a prototype being developed at the University of Leeds could greatly improve the diagnosis of cardiac conditions.

"The new system gets round previous difficulties by putting the actual detector in its own magnetic shield," says University of Leeds Professor Ben Varcoe, who is leading the research team.

Using a magnetometer to examine the cardiovascular health of humans has, up until now, been expensive and complicated, and has required containing said human within a magnetic shield to cut out other electrical interference.

Varcoe says the sensor his team is developing is placed over the area being examined, lives outside the shielded area, and transmits signals into the detector:

The sensor head is made up of a series of coils that cancel out unwanted signals and amplifies the signals that are needed. So the tiny magnetic fields produced by a person's heart can be transmitted into the heavily shielded environment. What we've been able to do is combine existing technology from the areas of atomic physics and medical physics in a completely unique way.

The Leeds prototype--developed as part of the university's work in quantum physics--can detect tiny magnetic variations, revealing the presence of cardiac conditions. The team is at work developing a miniature magnetometer for widespread medical use, to function through clothes, and to be portable enough to be taken to a patient's home, leading to a reduction in the use of hospital facilities. They hope it will be ready for routine diagnostic use within three years.

The team, which includes specialists in physics, electronics, precision measurement, and optical fiber technology, says their magnetometer should be particularly effective at detecting ischaemia, where bloody supply to a specific area of the body is blocked, and should shorten surgical procedures for those suffering from arrhythmia in particular, where much of the hours-long surgeries are spent trying to identify which node should be cauterized. Scanning the heart with this device could reduce the length of the entire process by 80 percent.

The instrument, expected to be smaller, faster, and less expensive than current heart scanners, also has the potential to detect abnormalities in other organs, including brains, the team says.

It turns out the magnetometer is a spin-off from the team's original project, "Creating Long Chain Entanglement Using a Phase Sensitive Micromaser." Funding was provided by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.