Courtesy of The Canberra Times, featuring Imaging CoE Associate Investigators, A/Prof. Elizabeth Gardiner and Dr Steve Lee from the Australian National University.

An idea that started with a beer at an Australian National University bar could soon help doctors save millions of lives.

A team of research engineers and biochemists at the University has invented and trialled a bio-optics diagnostic device that can help doctors identify patients at imminent risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

The device reveals the formation of blood clots by creating a 3D digital hologram from a blood sample in a fraction of a second.

It has traditionally been difficult to predict the formation of a blood clot because the major drivers behind them, platelets, are just 10 per cent of the size of a regular cell and clump together within seconds when triggered.

Associate professor Elizabeth Gardiner said the project started when a colleague at the university’s John Curtin School of Medical Research introduced her to Dr Steve Lee, who works at the ANU’s research school of engineering.

They went for a beer at the Wig and Pen Tavern and Brewery on campus and started talking about the possibilities.

“Even though we’re on the same campus, our paths would never have crossed,” she said.

“Sometimes you’ve got to go and have that beer at the university bar.

“In that relaxed atmosphere, you’re much more able to say ‘What if?’, and you can be more creative than if you’re in a structured seminar.”

Back then, the device was very much a ‘What if?’, but after nearly two years of work, it’s now a reality.

A/Prof Gardiner said while doctors used blood-thinning medication to treat people at risk of strokes and heart attacks, there had been no way of knowing precisely how susceptible a patient was until now.

“Right now, clinicians can’t really evaluate the propensity a person has to clot,” she said.

“… We can apply this technology to blood from patients at risk of clotting or uncontrollable bleeding.

“This is a potential game-changer.”

Associate Investigators for the ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging, Dr Steve Lee and A/Prof Elizabeth Gardiner, who met up for a beer and came up with the idea for a diagnostics device that can help doctors identify patients at imminent risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Photo: Dion Georgopoulos, image courtesy of The Canberra Times

The device can identify clot formation without any form of labelling, like fluorescence or a radiotracer, something Dr Lee said had been considered impossible until now.

While it can be fitted onto a regular microscope, the research team now has to shrink it to something small enough that it can fit into a shoebox, so it can be used in a clinical setting.

“I would say it’s about two or three years away from being used at the bedside,” Dr Lee said.

He said about 10 or 12 patients’ samples had been tested using the device so far, and there were plans to double that number by the end of the year.

Heart attacks and strokes kill millions of people around the world each year, with their effects felt widely across Australia.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Australia, with a heart attack claiming the life of one Australian every 66 minutes in 2016, according to the Heart Foundation.

Strokes are our third-leading cause of death and claimed the lives of 10,869 Australians in 2015, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.