New Way to Detect Heart Damage Caused by Chemotherapy

Understanding exactly how high-dose chemotherapy can cause heart failure.


Chemotherapy is an effective treatment for cancer. But, in high doses, it causes heart damage by making heart muscle inefficient at pumping blood around the body. To avoid such cases, doctors prescribe low doses of chemotherapy, which unfortunately aren’t as effective at destroying cancer cells.

Thus, it is essential to understand exactly how high-dose chemotherapy can cause heart failure to prevent such cases or to precisely identify cancer patients who are at increased risk.

Scientists at the University of Oxford now came up with the technique that could reveal whether chemotherapy is damaging a person’s heart before any symptoms appear.

Doxorubicin is a commonly used drug in chemotherapy that slows down or stops the growth of cancer cells. It essentially blocks an enzyme through which cancer cells begin to grow.

As much as it is effective, its high dosage can also cause heart failure.

Dr. Kerstin Timm, a Postdoctoral researcher said, “Around five percent of patients treated with doxorubicin will develop heart failure. The problem is that we can’t tell if a patient’s heart is being damaged by their chemotherapy before it’s too late.”

“First and foremost, we need to treat cancer as effectively as we can. But we need to give these patients a good quality of life after treatment, and that means monitoring them and taking any action before they risk developing heart failure.”

Scientists conducted their research on mice. They used a type of imaging called hyperpolarised MRI to identify what’s happening deep inside the heart’s cells.

Scientists believe that their scanning technique may make it possible for doctors to identify heart damage early. It could also change the person onto different chemotherapy drugs if possible or give them an extra drug that might have a protective effect.

Using the technique, doctors would be able to see how the heart muscle cells are producing energy, a process which doxorubicin is thought to affect.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the BHF said, “To survive cancer, only to develop heart failure is a devastating reality for thousands of people in the UK. We know that some chemotherapy drugs cause heart failure. But right now doctors have limited ability to detect this early.”

“By funding this research, we’re hoping to finally find a way to identify heart damage in its earliest stages and help to stop it in its tracks.”


See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.