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Diagnosing a heart condition earlier so newborn babies can be treated faster

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Each year, more than 200 babies are born with coarctation of the aorta (a narrowing in the body’s main blood vessel) in the UK.1,2 A baby with the condition can have serious problems and may need treatment shortly after birth. But parents face an anxious wait over several days to find out if their newborn baby will need major heart surgery. Dr Malenka Bissell of the University of Leeds is leading a study to investigate if advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can help diagnose babies sooner, reducing the period of uncertainty for parents and enabling quicker treatment decisions.

How are children’s lives affected now?

Coarctation of the aorta (CoA) is a condition where the main artery (the aorta) is narrower than usual, which means that less blood can flow through it. The narrowing can be severe and often requires surgery or other corrective procedures shortly after birth.  

“Newborn babies may be pale, floppy and find it difficult to feed properly,” says Dr Bissell. “In severe cases, not enough blood reaches the lower half of the body which can damage vital organs such as the liver, kidneys and gut.”

Ultrasound scans during pregnancy can identify babies with suspected CoA, but the diagnosis can’t be confirmed until after the baby is born. This will usually involve daily scans and blood tests for up to a week after birth.

“Understandably, new parents will find it a very stressful wait before they know if their baby needs major heart surgery,” says Dr Bissell. “Earlier diagnosis would benefit babies and their families by shortening this period of uncertainty – and allowing earlier treatment for those babies with the condition.”

How could this research help?

“Our goal is to develop a new tool that can help doctors to make the diagnosis of CoA much sooner after birth,” says Dr Bissell.

Children born with CoA often have blood vessels that are stiffer than normal, which can cause high blood pressure throughout their lives.

“We believe affected newborn babies already have stiffer blood vessels – and this could be used to make the diagnosis earlier,” says Dr Bissell.

The team will carry out detailed assessments of blood flow through the heart and blood vessels in newborn babies while they are asleep. By comparing data from babies with CoA and healthy babies, they hope to identify measurements that could help diagnose the condition earlier.

“Earlier diagnosis would allow prompt surgery, reducing the risk of damage to vital organs and improving recovery – as well as reducing stress for families. It would also help doctors to decide when to start treating high blood pressure with medication in affected children and teenagers.”

Dr Bissell

Research table

Project details

Project Leader Dr Malenka M Bissell, DPhil MD MRCPCH
Location Department of Biomedical Imaging Science, Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine, University of Leeds
Project Team Dr Jamie R Bentham, DPhil MRCPCH MA BM BCh
Dr John D Thomson, MD FRCP BM BS
Professor John P Greenwood, MB ChB PhD FRCP
Professor Sven Plein, MD PhD FRCP
Dr Jutta Scheffczik, FRCA
Dr Pablo Lamata, PhD
Dr Kuberan Pushparajah, BMedSci BMBS MRCPCH
Other Locations Department of Paediatric Cardiology, Leeds General Infirmary
Department of Paediatric Anaesthesia, Leeds General Infirmary
Department of Biomedical Engineering, King’s College London
Evelina Children’s Hospital, King’s College London
Grant Awarded
Grant Amount £13,400
Start Date
End Date
Duration 12 months
Grant Code (GN number) GN2867


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