How light could provide a heart attack detection system

Dr Christina Bursill is the Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics’ chief investigator in vascular health. She leads a research group looking at the underlying mechanisms for heart disease and a way to use photonics to detect it early on.

“The heart disease we look at specifically is atherosclerosis, which is the build-up of fatty deposits within the main arteries of the heart,” she says.

“The photonics aspect for us is the ability to identify these plaques through the way they emit light, using different types of imaging techniques.”

Her work involves in vitro studies of cells taken from human arteries as well as animal models of heart disease in which the nanoscale particles and their responses can be tested using imaging techniques like microscopy and positron emission tomography (PET).

Dr Bursill hopes the different colour profiles of the light emitted can be used to detect the key cell types in the fatty deposits that cause heart disease.

“All of the nanoparticles we use have unique properties, but all of them are able to detect key aspects of the development of this fatty build-up, atherosclerosis,” she says. “And by the increased accumulation of these various colours within these key cell types, we can get an idea of the development or maybe even the regression of this disease.”

Eventually she hopes this will be used clinically to provide early detection of disease development, or to track the effectiveness of a therapy.

Dr Bursill completed her PhD in lipid metabolism at the University of Adelaide, then headed to Oxford University for five years to undergo a postdoctoral post in the Departments of Cardiovascular Medicine and Pathology.

It was there that she developed her interest in the mechanisms that cause atherosclerosis and, in particular, the role of small inflammatory proteins called chemokines.

“I did biochemistry and physiology in my degree at university and then when I did my honours year, which is a really lab-based research-focused project, I absolutely loved it. And that’s how I made my decision to be a scientist.”

But she attributes Oxford to changing the course of her career.

“I was introduced to new models of heart disease which had only just been developed at the time. There were also a bunch of new different technologies, also very novel mechanisms for inflammatory-driven disease as well.

“And so I was lucky enough to work with some of the top people in the field, who were all very inspirational.”

She first became interested in using nanoscale photonics techniques after moving back to Adelaide and joining the Centre in 2017.

“Through the last two and a half years of being a part of this centre, it’s been very inspiring and we’ve got to work with some amazing scientists across a whole range of disciplines, who invented these amazing things that we can use to do things in a novel way,” she says.

She is passionate about increasing the focus on cardiovascular research.

“Heart disease is the most common cause of death, causing 30% of fatalities, but yet receive about a tenth of the funding of cancer and cancer researchers. Of course we don’t want to take that away from them, they obviously need it, but we think we should at least be somewhere on parity.”

She puts the disparity down to a general, if inaccurate, impression that either a cure has already been found for heart disease, or that it comes down to lifestyle choices.

“But it’s absolutely not the case,” says Dr Bursill. “Of the people who have heart attacks and go to the hospital, three out of 10 of them carry any traditional risk factors. So there’s a lot of information we don’t understand about what causes heart disease or a heart attack.”

She is also concerned about the gender imbalance among researchers in her field as many women drop out, defeated by juggling family responsibilities with the demands of a research career.

CNBP is an exception to that rule, she says.

“It’s got some great female leaders and equity is, I believe, very well -handled. I really appreciate it. It’s a really great environment for me.”