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Simple eye test devised by an Northern Ireland professor could spot early signs of heart disease

Prof Tara Moore and NI Chest Heart and Stroke chief Declan Cunnane
Prof Tara Moore and NI Chest Heart and Stroke chief Declan Cunnane

By Christopher Leebody

A simple eye test could "revolutionise" the detection of the risk of heart conditions, ground-breaking research has found.

It involves phone imaging technology examining the blood vessels in the eye for early signs of heart disease.

The project, led by Ulster University researcher Tara Moore, was revealed at an event hosted by Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS), who funded the venture.

The breakthrough, developed entirely in Northern Ireland, aims to predict the risk of a person developing a heart condition by looking at the blood vessels at the front of the eye.

Heart disease now accounts for more than 40% of deaths in Northern Ireland.

But it is hoped the development of this non-invasive procedure could have a major difference in reducing levels of the disease for patients, both locally and eventually globally.

Speaking at the announcement, NICHS chief executive Declan Cunnane said the worrying levels of heart health here prompted its decision to fund the project, saying it is "a matter of great concern".

"We are well aware that there are 17 people every day suffering a heart attack and there are in the region of 74,000 people living in NI with heart disease and that figure is increasing," he said.

"We plan to spend around £2m in research over the next four years, but this project is of particular interest to us because it looks specifically at heart disease and prevention.

"The hope, by funding this research, is that we will be able to, with Tara Moore and her team, develop a simple eye test that anyone can get. It will be cheap and readily available."

NICHS received a significant amount of funding for the work from local businesses, including Value Cabs, who raised £125,000.

"The statistics are quite alarming and the point about it is that the risk factors are detectable, and if they are detected there is still time to do something about it," Mr Cunnane said.

"What we are trying to do with this is to stop people ending up with heart disease, or worse, having a heart attack.

"At the moment to assess your risk you would have to go to a hospital, you might have to have an MRI scan from which there would be a huge waiting list.

"You might then have to have other expensive invasive surgeries. The hope with this test is that all that can be bypassed with a very simple, cheap eye test, that can be done at an optician."

Before spearheading the research, Prof Moore was an eye researcher who worked with patients suffering from genetic eye conditions. The "blue sky idea" came to her from examining the patterns of health in the patients she was working with.

Three years and "a lot of work" later, she hopes that it won't be long until the cutting-edge test is rolled out to high-street opticians and even people at home on mobile phones.

She said: "We are just using the technology that is there to try and make it accessible to people through the use of smartphone imaging.

"We are going to trial it now in a lot more people, to get the higher numbers to validate it, to make sure it consistently works and then at that stage we would hopefully spin this out to somewhere where they would take it up as an interest."

While she is trying to "keep her feet on the ground" about the potential impact of the test on heart health globally, she admits that the work she and her team have done has been "really rewarding".

"Something that was just an idea could potentially become a reality in years to come. That drives us all to do research," she said.

"Every researcher at the heart of it is hoping in anticipation that you could potentially impact on lives and save lives."

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