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Northern Ireland researchers are close to creating test to predict risk of heart disease to save lives.

Ground-breaking research funded by NI Chest Heart and Stroke and which aims to predict the risk of a person developing a heart condition, is being developed here in Northern Ireland.

A team of professors and cardiology medics from Ulster University and Royal Victoria Hospital, supported by RMCC and the Heart Trust Fund, received an initial grant from Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke in 2015 and from then, began working on a simple camera-based test looking at blood vessels at the front of the eye.

To date, they have already gained impressive results from their initial trials with 150 cardiac patients in Northern Ireland.

Professor Tara Moore, who has spearheaded the research, says the eye is a natural window to the heart;

“Generally, it’s only possible to detect heart conditions or signs of malfunction through a series of high tech scans or invasive tests, all of which involve access to specialist clinicians in the NHS and associated costs.

“This simple eye test offers direct and inexpensive observations of small blood vessels at the front of the eye- this microcirculation represents the earliest site at which endothelial dysfunction can be observed, and we hope the technology we are developing will have the ability to raise concerns about cardiac health, based on the condition of these eye vessels. Our trials to date have compared vessels in patients who have suffered heart attacks to those who have not.”

It means that in the future, screening for heart health could be included in a standard, high street eye test, and by keeping regular eye-test appointments, patients are also taking steps to look after their heart health.

“As part of our own health checks we get our eyes and ears tested regularly. Therefore, adding this screening to an eye test will hopefully raise awareness if any potential risk factors that should be addressed further. This will also enable the individual to assess and adapt their lifestyle to strengthen their heart health, reducing risk.”

Ultimately, the team aims for their ‘smartphone-based test’ to be used widely amongst high street opticians once thoroughly trialled and could also be developed in the future into an ‘at home test’ which anyone could use on their mobile phones.

Professor Moore added;

“Our eventual aim is to develop a medical technology capable of catching cardiovascular disease through early warning signs we can see in these small vessels in the eye. An important ambition for the team is to make this technology available to all; regardless of socio-economic status, location or age.”

Funded by Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS), the research is part of the organisation’s five-year strategy which was launched last year to lead the fight against heart disease in Northern Ireland through prevention and care services.

The strategy includes the growth of its care services in its pledges for the next five years and has launched a Heart Strong Campaign to raise £500,000 with the help of the public to roll out its plans for all-new post-rehabilitation care and support services.

A significant amount of the funding has been donated to NICHS by local business, Value Cabs, who raised £125,000, 100 per cent of which is going in to this research project.

Declan Cunnane, CEO of NICHS added;

“Professor Moore’s ambitions to further the prevention of heart disease through a widely available test falls in line with our organisation’s aims to inform people of heart disease risk factors, and ultimately fight the rising rates of heart disease in Northern Ireland.

“This research is funded by NI Chest Heart and Stroke with significant help from Value Cabs to whom we are very grateful. We are committed to investing in improving the overall standard of health, care and support across Northern Ireland. As part of our five-year strategy, we have pledged to invest at least £2 million into high quality research such as Eye as a Window by 2023 to enable a real impact for local people.”

Christopher McCausland from Value Cabs added;

“As a local partner for NI Chest Heart and Stroke, it gives us great pleasure to see the £125,000 staying in Northern Ireland to fund this research to produce such a simple test. As a family, we know how quickly heart conditions can strike and to know our donation is helping develop a test that will be available to all and show the signs of heart disease sooner, is fantastic.”