$300,000 award to advance OCT technique in cardiology

A University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin; Austin, TX) engineering professor and a cardiologist from UT Medicine San Antonio (San Antonio, TX) have received a $300,000 award from the the Clayton Foundation for Research (Houston, TX) to further develop an optical coherence tomography (OCT) technique to predict, or even prevent, heart attacks.

With the goal of bringing OCT into cardiology, biomedical engineering Professor Thomas E. Milner of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and his longstanding collaborator Dr. Marc D. Feldman hope to refine the technology so it can identify one more hallmark of a plaque vulnerable to rupturing within blood vessels. Ruptures of these fatty deposits are the most common cause of heart attacks and strokes.

The OCT technique created by the team led by Milner and Feldman can detect two of three classic features of a plaque that is vulnerable to rupture: thinning of the tissue layer—or "fibrous cap"—that covers the plaque’s core, and an especially large collection of lipids beneath that cap.

Although the ability to predict heart attacks accurately is still the long-term goal, a more imminent use for OCT might be determining whether the cells lining the walls of blood vessels have sufficiently repaired themselves after a drug-eluting stent is inserted. When this does not happen, patients are thought to be at risk for clots that obstruct the flow of blood and ultimately cause heart attacks. OCT can see this; ultrasound cannot.

The Clayton Foundation’s investment will allow researchers to tackle the third and final key characteristic of vulnerable plaques: an increase in the number of "macrophages," or scavenger cells that digest pathogens and cellular debris. Macrophages have been shown to weaken the fibrous cap.

Milner and Feldman’s research project is one of six new medical research programs being established by the Clayton Foundation in 2012.

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