Heart disease under a new lens— take a look at our 9 image competition winners

We’re funding researchers across the UK who are working to find new and better ways to diagnose, treat and prevent heart disease. Each year we invite them to show off their best scientific snaps in our ‘Reflections of Research’ competition. Read on to discover this year’s winner.

Getting to the heart of the matter — Fraser Macrae — University of Leeds

This year’s winner Getting to the heart of the problem (above) by Fraser Macrae at the University of Leeds takes us inside a deadly blood clot.

When we’re injured blood clots are life-savers, preventing us from losing too much blood. However, when blood clots form unecessarily inside blood vessels, they can be deadly.

Each year in the UK around 100,000 people die from a heart attack or stroke caused by unwanted blood clots.

In the image red blood cells are trapped in the 3D mesh of fibrin fibres, which hold the clot together. One red blood cell had been compressed into a heart shape by the contracting fibres surrounding it.

These fibrin fibres have a remarkable ability to stretch without breaking and can be stretched to more than five times their original size, making fibrin the most stretchable biological fibre known.

Fraser is using state-of-the-art methods to study the structure of blood clots and investigate how the fibre arrangements change their sensitivity to clot busting drugs.

Our supporters’ favourite

The generous support of the general public is pivotal to our ability to continue our life-saving research. This year we’ve paid tribute to this generosity by giving our supporters a chance to pick their own favourite photograph.

An artery’s insides — Dr Matthew Lee — University of Strathclyde

This hot-wired winner depicts a large scale image of an intact endothelium, the innermost layer of blood vessels.

The endothelium is an extensive and complex network of cells lining the entire cardiovascular system. Each magenta dot is an individual endothelial cell, all of which can communicate not only with other endothelial cells but also with the underlying smooth muscle of the blood vessel in order to control a vast number of cardiovascular functions.

The judges’ runner up

Flower from the heart — Dr Nicoletta Surdo — University of Oxford

Flower from the heart (left) was deemed this year’s second most impressive photograph, with it’s striking captivation of the muscle fibres that make up the chambers of a mouse’s heart under a microscope.

The photo lives up to its titular promise, with the mouse’s fibres beautifully transformed into the likeness of a rose with the use of fluorescent dyes for colouring — the titin ( a giant protein that acts as a molecular spring) has been given the green quality of our rose’s stem, while the beta-actinin (which helps to assemble and maintain myofibrils, cells which enable the heart muscle to contract) has been crimsoned, becoming an incredible set of appropriately blood-red petals.

Our highly commended shortlist

With another year of so many astounding entries, it’s important that we pay homage to all of the fantastic photographs that made it onto our shortlist.

Dr Nicoletta Surdo — University of Oxford

Butterfly in a cell

This magnetic photograph shows a mirrored image of mitochondria labelled with a fluorescent protein in a living mouse embryonic fibroblast (cells that make up the structural framework in tissues).

Dr Simon Wilson — University of Edinburgh

A Clot Forms

One could easily mistake some of these clot formations for the continents of our world. This image shows a blood clot (thrombus ) forming in a healthy human blood vessel. Platelets (green) dominate the thrombus with fibrin (red) sticking the thrombus to the blood vessel wall. Inflammatory cells (blue) are also evident.

Dr Sean Davidson — UCL

Heart of Hearts

In this thin section of a mouse heart, a cross-section of blood vessel looks rather like a heart itself. These researchers are studying the signalling processes that protect the heart and its vessels from injury. In this commonly used “H&E” stain, the heart muscle and vessel walls appear red, while the “control centre” nuclei of the cells appear blue.

Dr Yujie Yang — University of Edinburgh

Zebrafish motorways

This image shows the densely packed and organised blood vessel network in the heart of an adult zebrafish. This is a tropical freshwater fish that has the unusual ability to regenerate its heart following disease or injury, unlike humans. As part of our programme of research, we are studying the zebrafish to identify and understand what gives them this regenerative ability.

The researchers believe that the zebrafish will provide important information that may assist the design of future regenerative medicine strategies for the treatment of patients with heart disease.

Dr Tamara Girbl — QMUL

An inflammatory storm

This electrifying microscopy image was captured during the onset of an inflammatory response in a muscular tissue.

An inflammatory insult, such as infection or tissue damage, has caused neutrophils (pink) — that are normally found in the blood — to breach blood vessel walls (blue and green) and invade the surrounding tissue.

The excessive accumulation of neutrophils in the tissue can cause severe damage to our own body after events like myocardial infarction and stroke. This research group hope to unravel the mechanisms causing this strong neutrophil infiltration and look for new, effective therapies to fight cardiovascular diseases.

Dr Marcela Rosas — Cardiff University

Cellular Comet

The image shows a fibroblast in culture that has been labelled with an antibody against tissue factor, a protein located on the plasma membrane of the cell known as the initiator of coagulation.

Fibroblasts are cells that border the external part of blood vessels and do not have contact with the blood flow. However when there is an injury, these cells can contribute to the initiation of coagulation via tissue factor and help to the formation of clots.

Behind the lens

The above images are beyond impressive, but while it’s important to show them their deserved appreciation it is also crucial to remember that they possess a value greater than their beauty — each and every one tells us a story about heart disease, all of which contribute to the wealth of information needed for our fight to save lives.

By Ewan Martin