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Tiny Fish, Big Discovery

In a world first, Australian scientists have used high frequency ultrasound to examine more than one thousand beating hearts that are smaller than a grain of sand, paving the way for medical researchers to gain an unprecedented understanding of heart development, function and regeneration.

The game-changing new technology will shed new light on a multitude of adult-onset heart diseases, including heart attacks and dilated cardiomyopathy - an enlarging of the heart that affects 46,000 Australians and can progress to heart failure.

Lead by doctors at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, this study focused on a small, tropical, freshwater fish, which is commonly used as a model to examine human heart disease and heart regeneration.

One thousand ultrasounds were performed on one thousand zebrafish to create a live picture of their beating hearts, giving scientists a picture of heart function that has never been possible before.

Doctor Inken Martin is a biologist at the Victor Chang Institute and believes the breakthrough could open up a new avenue of investigation into heart regeneration and causes of heart failure in humans.

“A zebrafish heart is surprisingly similar to a human’s heart, with one vital difference: a zebrafish can regenerate and heal its own heart, much like a lizard can grow back its tail. But if a human’s heart is injured, for example by a heart attack, the damage is irreversible and sadly often fatal,” Dr Martin explained.

“If we can understand the complexities of how the heart works, we will be able to come up with better ways to diagnose, treat, or even prevent adult onset heart disease,” added Dr Martin.

Until now, high-level analysis of the heart has not been possible on such a tiny scale.

But thanks to a giant leap in technology, high resolution, high frequency echocardiographic images can now be captured with unparalleled detail and clarity. This is the same type of test that is used to look at human heart function, but on a much smaller scale.

The technique is performed underwater and takes just minutes to complete. The researchers looked at a range of factors that affect echo measurements, including age, gender and genetic background, with the results forming the most comprehensive analysis of zebrafish echocardiography in the world.

Cardiologist and co-author, Dr Louis Wang, believes the breakthrough will also help explain why some humans are more susceptible to developing heart failure than others.

“Previously there hasn’t been a robust method of measuring or monitoring the tiny hearts of these living animals. But, from scratch, we have designed, developed and implemented a gold standard method of assessing their heart structure and function,” Dr Wang revealed.

Importantly, the discovery was made without any harm to the freshwater creatures whatsoever.

The Victor Chang Institute’s aquarium is home to almost 40,000 zebrafish.

The findings, published in Disease Models & Mechanisms, are expected to be adopted by scientists worldwide.

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