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Research

How telescope technology is helping treat heart disease

(17 October 2017)

Research using space telescope technology that has ultimately led to better treatments for heart patients has won international recognition.

Professor of Physics and Director of Durham University’s Biophysical Sciences Institute, John Girkin, has been elected as a fellow of The Optical Society for his work using adaptive optics – normally used to observe far off stars - to study biophysical applications.

Professor Girkin said: “I am very honoured to be recognised by the Optical Society in this way, as the core of my research is the development of optically based instrumentation to help understand biological activity. Life is a four dimensional process and to be able to observe, and therefore understand what is taking place requires the ability to image dynamically, in three dimensions, for extended periods of time in intact samples.”

Telescopes and zebra fish hearts

To observe what takes place in cells in timescales ranging from thousandths of a second to multiple hours, Professor Girkin uses sophisticated optical technology originally designed for use in the world’s largest telescope.

Known as adaptive optics, the technology was developed by Durham University researchers to allow astronomers to overcome the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere on the quality of images obtained by the European Extremely Large Telescope

The high speed imaging allowed by adaptive optics was used by Professor Girkin to study the hearts of live zebra fish, which have the ability to repair any damage to their hearts. This has resulted in improved understanding of the operation of the human heart to develop better drugs and treatments for heart conditions. 

Insights into kidney disease

More recently Professor Girkin and his team, in collaboration with Edinburgh University, have developed the ability to kill individual cells within a zebra fish to then observe the repair processes that takes place. Through genetic manipulation, specific cells within the kidney produce a compound that, when illuminated by yellow light, cause the cells to die. The team has developed the optical methods to target such cells individually, or in groups, deep within the living fish, with a 100 per cent survival rate of the samples. This work, supported by the British Heart Foundation and EPSRC, is providing insights into the development of kidney disease and its role in controlling blood pressure.

In a variation of this deep targeting, Professor Girkin is working with Professor Roy Quinlan in Durham’s Department of Biosciences, on a project to monitor the development of the lens in the eye of the zebra fish. Over a 48 hour period they can track the cell movement within the eye and the developing optical properties of the lens. This work is linked with modelling in the Department of Engineering to try and understand the processes of organ development with the long term goal of potentially developing artificial cellular lenses for the treatment of cataracts, or to restore the ability of older people to focus their eyes. This also links with a project to use the diamond machining capability in Durham to produce a new form of glasses for the visually impaired to help patients with macular degeneration.

Miniature optics and mathematical modelling

A further collaborative project with Strathclyde University, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, is looking inside intact blood vessels to understand the signalling between the endothelia cells that line all blood vessels within the body.

Professor Girkin said; “By using miniature optics and some mathematical modelling we have been able to determine the way that such cells respond to changes in blood pressure providing a new route for drug development to treat high blood pressure.”

As the technique has the ability to observe a large number of cells simultaneously, in intact vessels, the multidisciplinary team are now trying to understand how the network of cells is able to respond to multiple chemicals flowing in the blood over a very wide range of concentrations in a manner that currently man-made sensors can only dream of doing.

Throughout all of Professor Girkin’s research work is a fundamental desire to understand some of the complex processes that control biological development by observing at high speed and high resolution. This is only possible through interdisciplinary collaboration integrating advanced biological techniques with novel, minimally invasive optical imaging methods.

Professor Girkin will be presenting a free talk on his work with zebra fish and optical microscopy on Saturday 2 December from 10.30-12.30, as part of the Saturday Morning Physics programme aimed at high school students and adults interested in modern physics.

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