Northern Ireland researchers bring new hope for heart disease

Researchers in Belfast have won a top UK medical innovation award for technology that makes the early diagnosis of potentially life-threatening damage to blood vessels easier than ever before. The research team from Queen’s University and the Medical Physics Agency was funded by the Health and Social Care R&D Office and Invest Northern Ireland.

Professor Gary McVeigh, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen’s University and a Cardiovascular Consultant in the Belfast City Hospital, will receive a Medical Futures Innovation Award – Cardiovascular Category – at a gala dinner in London on 14 June. A Medical Futures Innovation Award is the UK's most sought after healthcare accolade. It’s the first time a Northern Ireland research team has gained one of these top UK awards.

The development of this innovative technology, supported by Invest Northern Ireland’s Proof of Concept Programme, has produced sophisticated software for use in ultrasound systems to detect early signs of blood vessel damage. This new software will help diagnose cardiovascular disease, assess its severity, and monitor progression. Importantly the team’s work will also help evaluate the impact of new and existing drug therapies on arterial blood vessels.

The judging panel, which endorsed this novel research, included Prof Sir Magdi Yacoub, Professor of Cardiac Surgery, Imperial College, London and the pioneer of heart-lung transplant surgery, Prof Martin Rothman, Prof of Interventional Cardiology, University of London, and Dr Roger Boyle, National Director for Heart Disease, Department of Health, London.

Professor McVeigh, commenting on the award, says: “It’s a marvellous endorsement of our research team and should be of immense benefit as we seek to commercialise the technology through a licensing agreement with an established equipment manufacturer.

“The ability to detect and monitor blood vessel damage at the earliest stage possible holds potential not only to more precisely estimate the risk of developing future cardiovascular events but also to intervene at a pre-clinical stage to prevent or delay disease progression. Our success demonstrates the importance of clinical research and the contribution that research and development can make to effective health care.

“Existing software used in ultrasound machines to analyse blood flow patterns is not sensitive enough to detect early blood vessel damage and can often provide misleading information about the actions of drugs prescribed for a particular condition.

“We are already using our new software in clinical work on patients at increased risk. We now have sufficient evidence to demonstrate its superiority over existing applications. Potentially, this will give clinicians a more sensitive tool to directly monitor the effect of treatment on blood vessel health,” he adds.

“Invest NI’s Proof of Concept Programme,” Professor McVeigh adds, “provided essential support to enable the research team to turn a concept into a commercial product.”

Tracy Meharg, Invest NI’s Managing Director of Innovation and Capability Development, says: “This very exciting technology has significant global potential. It’s a superb example of the quality of research that’s now to be found in our universities and in our Health and social care service. We established the Proof of Concept Programme to assist such pioneering research and it’s immensely encouraging now to see such world-class innovation emerging from this initiative.”

Congratulating Professor McVeigh and his partners, Queen’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Peter Gregson said: “This prestigious award is evidence of the advantages of having world-class research within Northern Ireland, both in terms of the wider benefit to people’s health and the potential economic rewards that come from exploiting the research strengths here at Queen’s. I congratulate Professor McVeigh, his team and his partners in the Medical Physics Agency.”

Professor Robert Stout, Director of R&D for Health and Social Care, says “This is a great achievement by Professor McVeigh and his team which not only recognises his expertise but shows the value of research and development in health and social care. The ability to detect cardiovascular problems at an earlier point and to monitor the effectiveness of subsequent treatments is a significant advance.  The award highlights the benefits of the close research links between our universities and the health and social services, as well as demonstrating how health and social care research can lead to commercial as well as health benefits.”

Dr Canice McGivern, Director of the Northern Ireland Regional Medical Physics Agency and research collaborator with Professor McVeigh, says “This award recognises the importance of cross speciality working in the development and delivery of a modern healthcare service. The ability and opportunity to bring together clinicians, scientists and other healthcare professionals promotes an environment that fosters the development of new approaches to healthcare delivery.”

Invest NI is now supporting a project, called HPSS Innovations to assist researchers who have ideas to move this technology transfer process along in order to develop products with health and social care benefits.