Tests on tiniest blood vessels can reveal the beginnings of serious disease

Healthy arteries are essential for our wellbeing and arterial ­disease, which causes them to harden, is behind several ­serious chronic conditions.

But could arterial disease be ­discovered early to head off conditions such as diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases?

Coventry University’s Centre for Intelligent Healthcare (CIH) is trying to answer that question with new equipment and techniques that could be used for microvascular imaging – generating pictures of the body’s smallest blood vessels.

The research will focus on how changes in those vessels can be linked to early-stage disease using different colours of light to accurately assess blood flow and the blood’s temperature and composition, which can all help to detect circulatory problems non-invasively and at low cost.

For instance, the researchers will investigate new ways to assess the severity of Raynaud’s phenomenon – a circulatory condition which causes fingers and toes to change colour when a person is cold or anxious.

It’s hardly ever considered serious on its own but it can sometimes be the first sign of more severe conditions.

Professor John Allen of CIH is leading the research at the new facility.

Research will be done alongside specialists including rheumatologists at ­University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, and will look at how practical applications of the research could be used in the NHS.

Coventry University’s research isn’t confined to finding better diagnostic techniques.

It also has applications in assessing health and wellbeing such as the concept of vascular age – a marker of circulatory fitness measured by studying the stiffness of arteries – a topic of international interest.

It’s currently difficult to measure vascular age reliably, so Coventry University is teaming up with other scientists, engineers and clinicians, through groups such as VascAgeNet, to develop low-cost ways of assessing the health of a person’s circulation.

The techniques the team are using not only detect abnormal blood flow but can also assess high-quality blood flow.

Professor Allen says: “Detecting Raynaud’s quickly and taking subsequent tests to determine if a patient has a more serious condition, such as systemic sclerosis, is incredibly important.

“Such conditions should not be left undiagnosed, as they can significantly affect the internal organs of the body as well as the skin.

“Raynaud’s can be an early symptom of such an underlying condition.

“The new technology will also help us to study conditions such as diabetes and cancer in novel ways.

“Our tests are not only about the diagnostic techniques, but also to make them more affordable and accessible, and therefore more likely to be adopted by healthcare providers.”