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Geology research aids heart defect

25 March 2009

Professor Nick Petford A BU geologist’s research could provide a breakthrough for heart patients.

Professor Nick Petford, geologist and BU Pro Vice-Chancellor, has discovered a modelling technique during his research into how planets are formed which can also be used to detect heart defects.

The finding has already helped surgeons at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital confirm the location of a potentially life-threatening blood-clot.

With a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Professor Petford and Professor Tracy Rushmer at Macquarie University, Sydney, investigated the early formation of planets and wanted to find out how liquid travelled into their centre.

Professor Petford explained: “Once you establish how metal flows in cracks then you can develop computer simulations to see how fast it moves.

“For a long time people thought the flow of liquid iron along the edge of grains and through narrow channels and cracks was not possible. NERC funding enabled me to develop a technique for importing object images of rock slices into a software package and then run a fluid-flow computer simulation to look at how liquid metal inside a meteorite moves around under pressure.”

Professor Petford realised the same idea could be applied to other areas of science and even medicine: “Working with a heart radiographer at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital, I then used the same methodology to look at blood-flow in a diseased human heart. The raw data we used was an actual MRI scan from a patient. If you have an image and you know fluid flows in it, you can solve the fluid flow equations for that specific geometry.”

The scientists imported the geometry of the arteries into their newly developed software and used the same methods to simulate the blood-flow changing the viscosity and density of the fluid. The location of the stagnant flow was not obvious from the initial MRI scan, but when the researchers used the software to analyse the scan they predicted the clot's location correctly.

The breakthrough for medicine could be profound. “All vascular systems are different,” explained Professor Petford. “What we can start to think about now are bespoke blood-flow models.

“This is a good example of knowledge transfer across disciplines that at first glance do not have much in common, in this case geophysics and clinical medicine. The next step is to develop its medical applications,” he added.

A detailed article regarding this research can be found on the PlanetEart website below.

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