Peter Weissberg, retiring BHF Medical Director on highlights of a career promoting research
Throughout his career and as BHF Medical Director, Professor Peter Weissberg has promoted research. As he prepares to retire, he shares his highlights with Sarah Brealey.
Professor Peter Weissberg has always worked hard for heart patients. He was the first full-time cardiologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. He went on to establish a department of cardiovascular research at Cambridge University, and was the first BHF Professor there.
This autumn, he retires from his 12-year tenure as Medical Director of the BHF, in which he’s helped set up Centres of Research Excellence, bringing the best scientists together to work on heart research.
He compares science to geographical exploration. “You have scientists going into areas that human beings haven’t been in before,” he says.“They have a general idea of which way they are heading and what they might find, but some of the paths turn out to be dead ends, while others go somewhere entirely unexpected. The important thing is to chart their progress (in scientific papers) so that others can learn from their experience.”
Professor Weissberg’s research career, mostly funded by the BHF, focused on cellular mechanisms in atherosclerosis (hardening of blood vessels and formation of fatty plaques that can result in heart attack and stroke).
It led to new imaging techniques to identify dangerous plaques. Other scientists built on this, with the help of BHF funding and encouragement from Professor Weissberg.
Dr James Rudd, once one of the professor’s PhD students, now leads research at the University of Cambridge into plaque imaging. Dr Marc Dweck, a BHF Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, has built on Professor Weissberg’s work using positron emission tomography (PET) to improve heart attack prediction.
Professor Peter Weissberg at work, in the 1980s
Patient studies have now started, and in a few years it could be routinely used to identify those at risk of heart attack and stroke. “I never imagined the cell biology I started working on in the 1980s would lead to being able to look at individual cells inside the blood vessels of human beings,” says Professor Weissberg. “This line of research continues to grow and flourish.”
I never imagined the cell biology I started working on in the 1980s would lead to being able to look at individual cells inside the blood vessels of human beings.
Professor Weissberg is not keen on the idea that scientific discovery comes from lucky accident or good fortune. Rather, he says, it’s vital that researchers are “hugely observant and open-minded”.“Good scientists set out to find something from an experiment,” he says. “If they don’t get the result they expected, they don’t just throw it away. They ask why things didn’t go as expected and consider that there might be something else going on which could tell them something they didn’t know.
“That is why the BHF has always been a supporter of pure scientific research, which is not totally goal oriented. When we give grants to scientists, they may say: ‘We hope this will happen’. But we don’t mind if it leads them to something different and more interesting – that is how science progresses.”
One way he’s helped science progress is through BHF Centres of Research Excellence. There are six, at the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial College London, King’s College London and Oxford. Since the programme began in 2008, about £58m of BHF funding has been given or pledged.
“It has created a new generation of cardiovascular scientists and galvanised the scientists in those centres,” Professor Weissberg says. “It allows scientists in other centres to learn from their example. People see that the BHF is really making a difference.”
The centres bring together scientists from different disciplines, so departments with diverse skills collaborate. “We told the universities they had to have an overarching strategy for research into heart and circulatory disease,” he says. “In the past you would rarely have engineers working in cardiovascular disease, but because we encouraged them to involve researchers who weren’t biological scientists, we now have physicists, engineers and mathematicians applying their skills to the problems of heart disease.”
Learning from patients
Until last year, Professor Weissberg worked as a cardiologist one day a week. He says this enriched his work for the BHF. “It brings reality to my understanding of patients with heart disease and the problems they face,” he says. “That’s important when you come to a charity which is evangelical about heart health. We should guard against patronising people who, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to modify their risk factors in the way we would like.
“Also, when you come across someone who has led an absolutely exemplary lifestyle yet they’ve still had a heart attack in their 40s or 50s, it makes you realise that there is a lot we still don’t know about cardiovascular disease.”
There is no doubt in my mind that if we are going to make a difference to heart and circulatory disease, it has to be through research.
Having published more than 120 academic papers, it was this desire to continue developing our understanding that brought Professor Weissberg to the BHF. “I thought it was an opportunity to use the BHF’s money to drive cardiovascular research across the UK.”
In Professor Weissberg’s time at the BHF, research funding has increased significantly, thanks to the efforts of BHF fundraisers and public donations. When he joined, it was around £40m a year – even then, the BHF was the biggest independent funder of heart research in the UK. In the last financial year, research funding was above £100m.
The BHF plans to spend similarly every year until 2020. “There is no doubt in my mind that if we are going to make a difference to heart and circulatory disease, it has to be through research,” says Professor Weissberg.
His successor is Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, BHF Professor of Cardiology and Head of Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of Leicester. He will continue
to work at Glenfield Hospital, Leicester, two days a week. “One of the things I am most proud of is the quality of applicants who wanted to take over from me,” says Professor Weissberg. “Nilesh arrives as someone who is highly respected in the medical research and healthcare communities: he is knighted, he is Deputy Lieutenant of Leicestershire. His challenge will be to use BHF resources to promote and support research that ultimately leads to better global cardiovascular health.”
Peter Weissberg CV
Medical Director, BHF
Consultant Cardiologist, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge
Director of Cardiology, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge
BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, University of Cambridge
Research Fellow, Baker Medical Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia
Graduated in medicine, University of Birmingham. Followed by roles in general medicine and cardiovascular research, Birmingham.