Research breakthroughs

One of our researchers, Rhian Touyz, looking through a microscope in her laboratory.

In 1961, the year the BHF was formed, cardiovascular disease accounted for over half of all deaths in the UK.  Surprisingly little was known about heart disease, or possible ways of treating it. 

To fight this modern epidemic, the British Heart Foundation was established by a group of prominent cardiologists, and since the 1960s we’ve helped to fund some of the greatest advances in cardiovascular research.

Here are some of the breakthroughs your donations have helped to fund:

Understanding and treating heart attacks

Before the 1970s heart attacks were poorly understood, but this changed when Professor Michael Davies led a groundbreaking study to prove that heart attacks are caused by a blood clot in a coronary artery.

His work paved the way for the development and use of clot-busting drugs and we helped show the world their life saving potential by supporting the pioneering Clinical Trials Services Unit at Oxford.There, a series of studies proved the effectiveness of clot-busting drugs to treat heart attacks, setting the stage for their widespread use across the globe.


By the 1980s scientists had established that high cholesterol increased a person’s risk of a heart attack, but there was still some confusion as to whether a cholesterol lowering drug could help to prevent heart disease. A 1989 a trial in Scotland, led by BHF Professor Stuart Cobbe, was the first to give statins to large numbers of people and showed that statin treatment was a safe way of lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease in a high risk group. 

In the mid-1990s the Heart Protection study, led by BHF professor Sir Rory Collins, showed that giving statins to people with normal cholesterol levels but who were at high risk, reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke. Statins are now the most commonly prescribed drug given to those at risk of developing heart disease and are estimated to save over 7,000 lives in the UK each year. 

Saving the lives of babies born with heart defects

When the BHF was formed, 8 in 10 babies born with a congenital heart defect didn’t survive to see their first birthday. But BHF-funded surgeons and researchers have helped transform the treatment of these conditions. 

In the 1970s BHF Professor Magdi Yacoub pioneered a surgical technique to correct a defect in which a baby’s major blood vessels are attached to the wrong chambers of the heart. This procedure is now used routinely around the world. 

Thanks to the work of pioneering BHF scientists, today 8 in 10 babies born with congenital heart conditions survive to adulthood.

Genetic breakthroughs

Your donations have also helped fund scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying deadly inherited heart conditions. BHF Professor Steve Humphries spent 30 years identifying the genes that cause familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) – a condition that causes abnormally high cholesterol and can lead to a heart attack at a very young age.

He proved that genetic testing could be used to find which family members are also affected, with children as young as 10 being identified. We are currently funding a UK-wide roll-out of this genetic testing service and have already diagnosed thousands of people. 

Similarly, BHF Professors Hugh Watkins and Bill McKenna discovered many of the faulty genes that can lead to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – a condition that can lead to the sudden death of a seemingly healthy young person. 

Professor Watkins used his findings to set up the UK’s first genetic testing service for HCM in Oxford, which has already diagnosed many people at risk of the disease. Today, we’re supporting the national roll-out of the service through the Miles Frost Fund so more lives can be saved. Read about how the research funded 20 years ago is helping save lives today: when 9 year old Owen suffered a cardiac arrest

There is more to do

With your support, we’ve made great headway over the last 55 years. But there is still much to do to create a world where people do not die prematurely from heart disease. 

Thanks to the generosity of our donors we are now able to fund around £100 million of first class research each year. For example, we currently fund three Centres of Regenerative Medicine, created to find novel ways to heal hearts after heart attack. We cannot continue the fight for every heartbeat successfully without the support of the public.   

 Browse timelines of research into heart attacks and inherited conditions


Browse some statistics on the scale of heart and circulatory disease