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Durham University

Durham University News



Telescope technology used for Durham University heart research project

(12 September 2013)

Canary Adaptive Optics Laser

Sophisticated optical technology developed at Durham University for use in the world's largest telescope is having far-reaching additional applications for research in other areas, including heart research.

Adaptive optics, which will allow astronomers to overcome the distorting effects of the earth's atmosphere on the quality of images obtained by the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), are also being used prominently for a research project entitled Beating Hearts at High Resolution.

The project involves two of Durham's Research Institutes, the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing and Biophysical Sciences Institute (BSI).

The aim is to improve understanding of the operation of the human heart to develop better drugs and treatments for heart conditions, concentrating research on hearts of zebra fish.

Professor John Girkin, Director of the BSI and Wolfson Fellow at Durham University, said: "The high speed imaging allowed by adaptive optics is crucial because the hearts are moving and embedded in the body of an animal, meaning it must be imaged at depth."

"Zebra fish are inherently transparent, so we can see what is going on, which is of course crucially important. And there are two outstanding features; the zebra fish heart can repair itself, unlike the human heart, which can't do that even at a very early stage. We
want to understand that repair process and translate it to humans.

"The other advantage is that most drugs work on the zebra fish heart in the same way as on the human heart, which has obvious experimental advantages”.
Professor Girkin added:

"We may be able to use zebra fish embryos as a screen for further therapeutic drugs for use in treating heart patients and also to model the biological and biochemical process to understand heart formation and heart disease."

Adaptive optics were developed because turbulence in the atmosphere makes earth-based observation similar to looking through bathroom window glass, ruining the sharpness of the images and making many types of astronomy next to impossible. Furthermore, these aberrations change every thousandth of a second, making a static optical fix impossible.

Scientists at Durham University have also been using adaptive optics in ophthalmic optics and vision science and have made a number of advances, ranging from "true" 3D images, which are more comfortable to watch than the conventional technology which merely tricks the brain into seeing a 3D image and can become uncomfortable, to new techniques for determining people's spectacle prescriptions. Making high resolution images of the retina is difficult because of imperfections in the eye; adaptive optics is therefore used to improve these images.

Similarly, using adaptive optics technology can aid ophthalmic diagnostics by producing more complete measurements of the eye than can be achieved at an opticians.

Colin Cunningham from STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre who is leader of the UK E-ELT Project Office, said: “It is very gratifying to see the investment we have put in over the last ten years in order to enable the E-ELT to produce exquisite images of the universe now bearing fruit in biological research. We look forward to seeing what other technological benefits will result from the -E-ELT”.

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