October 25, 2012

Helping us beat atrial fibrillation

Around 950,000 people in the UK have atrial fibrillation. Also known by its initials, AF, the condition mostly affects people aged 55 and over and greatly increases the risk of having a stroke.

Corinne PritchardOur Digital Media Officer Corinne Pritchard talks to our newest BHF Professor, Barbara Casadei about how she is taking on the challenges of atrial fibrillation.

Professor Casadei’s research gives hope to many thousands of people in the UK who are at risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

Professor Peter Weissberg
BHF Medical Director

What is atrial fibrillation?

Normally, your heart’s natural pacemaker sends out regular electrical impulses. Atrial fibrillation happens when those impulses fire off from different places in the atria (the top chambers of the heart) in a disorganised way.

The symptoms of atrial fibrillation - an irregular or racing heartbeat, tiredness, dizziness, feeling faint and shortness of breath – can cause real distress for sufferers.

For many, there are no noticeable symptoms – but they still have a greatly increased risk of stroke and heart failure.

As for the causes, while for some people they can be traced back to one or more underlying conditions – for example coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, heart valve disease, an overactive thyroid gland or even excess alcohol consumption - in many patients no underlying cause can be found.

This is where Professor Casadei and her team come in.

They’ve been awarded over £1.9 million to look into the causes of atrial fibrillation, and come up with new and improved treatments for patients.

Investigating atrial fibrillation

Profile

Professor Barbara Casadei

Barbara Casadei

BHF Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine

One of the top Professors in the field, Barbara Casadei has been working at Oxford University for 20 years and has now received over £1.9 million to investigate the causes of atrial fibrillation.

Barbara isn’t just a research scientist, she’s also a trained clinician working with patients in the field, and also our newest BHF Chair. Professor Casadei’s work could lead to new ways of preventing and treating atrial fibrillation.

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One of the times people are most at risk of developing AF is immediately after heart surgery. About 35 - 50 per cent of patients develop atrial fibrillation in the 5 days after their operation. 

Barbara says: “My team and I are currently conducting a clinical trial on a potential treatment which we hope will prevent patients from developing AF after surgery.

“We found that inflammation and the level of certain substances called reactive oxygen species in the heart predicted whether someone might get atrial fibrillation after a heart operation. 

“Once we discovered this, we pinpointed how these reactive oxygen species were being produced. The next step was to find a way to help reduce the levels of these substances in the heart.

“Early tests showed that a short course of statins – the cholesterol lowering drug - before surgery seems to reduce the amount of reactive oxygen species in patient’s heart. So now we’re doing a full scale trial to see if this treatment with statins really will help us stop AF from developing.

“I’m delighted that the British Heart Foundation has decided to appoint me as a BHF Chair. They’ve supported me and my work for many years, and it’s very exciting that they’ve decided to make this long-term commitment. It’s a huge encouragement to me and to my team.

“We’ve got an extremely talented group of researchers working on the problem of preventing AF here at the University of Oxford, and I'm optimistic that with this support our research will make a real difference.”