Magnetic resonance (MR) imaging is a diagnostic modality that most of us are familiar with. I have known many people, outside of my workplace, who themselves had an MR exam or had a friend or relative undergo one to check out a sports injury, to diagnose cancer, or to follow up after a stroke. Regardless of the reason for which an MR exam is prescribed, most people still think of it as an anatomical imaging modality – where certainly it excels compared to other diagnostic approaches.

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Yet MR can do so much more. It can image tissue function, such as identifying ischemic tissue and measuring microvascular perfusion. It can capture the mechanical motion of the heart. It can visualize therapeutic cells that are introduced into the body. It has the potential to monitor many ingredients that are being investigated for tissue engineering and regenerating new heart tissue. The advantage of MR imaging? It can do all this non-invasively, without ionizing radiation, and in one exam setting.

Toward growing new heart tissue

Our lab in the Translational Biology & Engineering Program of the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research is focused on developing new MR technologies for improved cardiac diagnostics and taking these capabilities to investigate novel therapies to regenerate new, healthy heart tissue.

We are devising new contrast mechanisms to enable long-term MR cell tracking in vivo, so that we can truly determine the fate and function of stem cells delivered to the infarct zone. We will soon be translating to cardiac imaging a technology we have developed for looking at microvessel functional dynamics, for which a non-invasive alternative currently does not exist.

This technology will provide important insight into the health of the microvascular bed at early timepoints before an adverse event occurs, and will provide functional assessment of the efficacy of different regeneration strategies. We have also demonstrated new methods by which we can monitor biomaterials used to support tissue regeneration and are aiming to expand the repertoire of materials we can monitor non-invasively. Advanced computing capabilities are being built in our lab to enable the computation of functional and physiological “maps” in a matter of seconds, an important requirement for clinical translation.

Taken together, these technologies are interwoven to build an enabling platform for several regeneration strategies we are currently investigating for growing new heart tissue.

For more information, visit the Cheng lab.