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Stunning images from the British Heart Foundation’s ‘Reflections of Research’ photo competition

The British Heart Foundation has announced the winners of its annual Reflections of Research image competition. 

Using medical devices such as MRI scans and microscopes, medical experts have captured the heart in a new light, highlighting its complexity and mystery. 

It also highlights the cutting-edge research into heart and circulatory diseases across the UK through captivating images. 

The overall winner for 2019 is Iona Cuthbertson, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, who’s entry – ‘A Sea of Cells’ – is a close-up of smooth muscle cells that surround the blood vessels in mice. 

The smooth muscle cells, which are partly responsible for the control of blood flow by narrowing or widening blood vessels, are marked with differently coloured fluorescent proteins. 

Tracking the ebb and flow of different proteins in the cells over time can tell scientists about their origins and ability to divide, and help them to understand how the smooth muscle in blood vessels grows.  

The judges said it resembled the thick brushstrokes of Vincent van Gogh.    

Ms Cuthbertson is investigating ways in which rare types of smooth muscle cells in the walls of arteries rapidly grow after injury. 

Specifically, what the rapid growth means in relation to conditions such as atherosclerosis, where there’s a build-up of fatty substances inside arteries – a condition associated with increased stroke and heart attack risk.  

The first runner-up came from Dr Richard Tyser, a BHF Immediate Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. His image (above) shows the heart in a developing mouse embryo. 

In red are the heart cells and in grey are the cells which make up the rest of the mouse embryo. During early development, the heart initially forms this crescent-like shape and it starts to beat.

Dr Tyser is hoping to further our understanding of the way in which the heart is built during development. 

Their findings could act as a researcher’s instruction manual to make heart cells. Using this blueprint, they hope to be able to repair the heart when it gets damaged after various devastating conditions, such as following a heart attack or when babies are born with congenital heart defects.

The second runner-up was a team effort from Cheryl Tan, Maryam Alsharqi, Dr Winok Lapidaire, Dr Mariane Bertagnolli and Dr Adam Lewandowski, all based at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine’s Oxford Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility at the University of Oxford. 

Their image (also above) reflects the complex interaction between the heart and the brain, portraying some of the different imaging techniques that they use to investigate this relationship. 

These include magnetic resonance imaging of the heart and brain, ultrasound imaging of the heart, and fluorescent imaging of the heart and blood vessels.

Their research aims to better understand how the brain and heart’s structure and function are related. They’ll also investigate how these relationships differ in people with risk factors for heart and circulatory diseases, such as high blood pressure or a history of pregnancy complications including premature birth and preeclampsia. 

The team are hoping to find out how diseases of the heart and brain develop in higher risk individuals, and how they can be prevented.

Guest judge and Head of Programming at Science Gallery London, John O’Shea, said: ‘Through the skill and imagination of the scientists involved, all of the shortlisted images reveal to us in new ways remarkable processes of life. 

‘The winning image succeeds in portraying a turbulent drama happening at a cellular scale.’

Meanwhile, Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive at the British Heart Foundation, and one of the judges of this year’s competition, added: ‘Science and art are two different ways of seeing the world, yet here we demonstrate how the two beautifully collide.

‘These snapshots of the scientific world all tell a story about the complexities of the heart and circulatory system. 

‘Connecting science and art showcases new discoveries, sparks curiosity and helps to push for medical breakthroughs in our journey to save and improve lives, and to ultimately beat heartbreak forever.’

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