Getting to the heart of disease

15 January 2020:

Coronary artery disease kills around 7 million people each year, making it the leading cause of death worldwide.

The culprit behind this life-threatening condition is build-up of high-risk plaque in the arteries which cause blood clots that block blood flow to the heart. But diagnosing this plaque before it becomes life-threatening is still a major challenge for medical practitioners.

Current diagnostic tools such as electrocardiogram and angiograms are able detect whether there is a plaque build-up in the arteries, however they are currently unable to accurately diagnose if the plaque is high-risk.

At the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, Dr. Jiawen Li is developing a tiny fibre-optic device that can pinpoint high-risk plaque, which may help doctors treat patients earlier and prevent a heart attack from occurring and recurring.

“We want to find a way to accurately diagnose this high-risk plaque before it becomes life-threatening.” says Li.

Benchtop experiment with cardiologist Dr Johan Verjans (Credit: Prof. Robert McLaughlin)

The device combines intravascular optical coherence tomography and fluorescence to visualize plaque in the artery wall in a minimally invasive way. Doctors can use the high-resolution images to measure the thin outer layer of the plaque, a typical characteristic of more dangerous types of plaque, and get molecular information simultaneously.

“This can help doctors determine whether the plaque is high-risk with greater confidence,” says Li, who is funded by the National Heart Foundation and the University of Adelaide. “I hope to make this technology accessible in hospitals where it can directly help patients.”

In recognition of this work, Li was the winner of the 2019 Winnovation Award (Engineering). “I have realised that my niche is making really small things that are multipurpose,” she says. Li has also won the 2019 Australian Optical Society Geoff Opat Early Career Researcher Prize.

Jiawen receiving Winnovation award from Uni SA’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Research & Innovation Prof Simon Beecham (Photo credit: Heidi Wolff)

Li began exploring biomedical fibre-optic probes during her PhD at the University of California, Irvine. In 2015, she moved to Australia to join Professor Robert McLaughlin’s group at The University of Western Australia. When McLaughlin was appointed as Chair of Biophotonics at the University of Adelaide in 2016, Li moved to Adelaide to join CNBP.

Li says that one of the highlights of working at CNBP is the people who have helped her along the way.

“It’s definitely a place where disciplines converge, and people can easily talk to expert from other fields,” says Li. “I can see how my mentors are supporting me and helping me grow. It’s really nice to be in that environment.”