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Could MRI imaging detect early signs of heart disease in lupus sufferers?

Published on 25 September 2018
Could MRI imaging detect early signs of heart disease in lupus sufferers?Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints, skin and many other organs throughout the body. Modern treatments have improved the outlook for people with lupus, however there is currently no cure. It remains a variable and unpredictable condition and may even be life-threatening for people whose vital organs, like the heart, are affected.

Careful monitoring of the condition is needed so that potentially serious complications can be recognised and treated promptly, and a team of researchers seems to have made a major leap forward in this area.

The group from China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University, led by Drs Meng Jiang and Jun Pu, has used cardiac magnetic resonance (CMR) imaging to produce detailed pictures of the heart to uncover the initial signs of heart disease in lupus patients.

The researchers used CMR imaging on 50 patients who had just been diagnosed with lupus and 60 who had been dealing with the disease for a long time, as well as 50 people without the condition. The scans revealed cardiac issues or problems with the heart such as scarring, and showed that these issues progressed alongside the lupus.

What is most interesting is that the team were able to detect these cardiac issues in patients who had only just been diagnosed with the disease, and who had not reported any related systems such as chest discomfort. Current tests that assess lupus patients' heart health like electrocardiograms (ECGs) cannot often show the changes that can be seen with CMR. This means the CMR imaging could detect the very first signs of heart disease early on, giving plenty of time to treat the condition.

Dr Pu said: "Our findings may affect current lupus diagnostics and treatment; meaning more patients with silent cardiac insults could be identified and receive proper treatment."

However, there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding this discovery. While it's thought that sufferers will be able to receive treatments to tackle the cardiac issues and protect their hearts from additional damage, more research needs to be done.

Speaking about the possibility of using anti-fibrotic treatments to tackle the cardiac scarring that was discovered, Dr Jiang said: "Whether these treatments will improve a patient's prognosis still needs to be evaluated by further clinical studies."

Dr Devi Sagar, research liaison manager at Arthritis Research UK, comments:
“Lupus affects people of all ages and can have a devastating impact on a person's everyday life. Daily activities that we often take for granted - like getting out of bed, climbing the stairs or even preparing a meal - can be incredibly difficult.
"It's hard to predict exactly how lupus will affect a person and studies like this show us why early detection and careful monitoring of the condition is key to spotting the more serious complications developing.

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