Research

Understanding air pollution and reducing drug side effects: Discover the research we're funding

Petri dish in a research lab

In the last three months we've funded £16 million of life-saving research. That's 41 new research projects across the UK. Here are five of the most exciting research projects we're now funding.

1. We want: to understand how air pollution damages your heart

We invested: £297,549 to Dr Holly Shiels at University of Manchester 

Air pollution across the London skyline

Being exposed to air pollution, even for a short time, can trigger heart attacks, strokes and irregular heart rhythms, especially in people who are already at risk of these conditions.

Previous evidence suggests a link between a group of air pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heart disease, but the nature of this link remain unclear. 

Being exposed to air pollution, even for a short time, can trigger heart attacks, strokes and irregular heart rhythms

PAHs are produced when we burn substances like coal, petrol, diesel and tobacco. Dr Holly Shiels has previously shown in fish heart cells that PAHs have damaging effects on important heart cell machinery, and can affect the heart’s normal rhythm and ability to pump blood. 

Most previous research focuses on one substance (phenanthrene), but there are other PAHs which are thought to contribute to heart problems but that have not yet been explored. 

Dr Shiels will expand on previous studies by looking at the effects of a range of PAHs on animal and human heart cells, and how PAHs alter the heart’s ability to contract. The results will help us understand how PAHs cause heart damage function.

2. We want: to find out why heart and circulatory diseases are associated with a higher risk of dementia

We invested: £273,844 to Professor Alun Hughes at University College London 

MRI scan of the brain showing possible dementia

The number of people affected by dementia has increased dramatically in recent years. Heart and circulatory diseases are known to be associated with dementia, but the processes underlying this link are poorly understood. It is suspected that low blood flow into the brain may be a contributing factor. 

Heart and circulatory diseases are known to be associated with dementia, but the processes underlying this link are poorly understood

Professor Alun Hughes and his team will investigate the relationships between the structures and function of brain and heart and circulatory system. They will follow the progress of 375 people who have all had their brain, blood pressure and heart function monitored throughout their adult life. At age 70 their levels of β-amyloid, a marker of dementia, were also measured. 

The researchers will measure the blood flow in the brain of the participants, now aged 72, to discover whether heart and circulatory disease can influence mental decline and dementia. 

The results could identify people with heart and circulatory disease who are most at risk of dementia, help prevent it, and highlight new pathways for treatments.

3. We want: drugs that don’t have bad side effects for your heart

We invested: £207,792 to Professor Jules Hancox at University of Bristol 

Range of pills and tablets - heart medication

The heart’s ability to pump blood depends on coordinated electrical activity, which is generated by molecules in your heart cells. One of these (hERG), is essential for normal heart function. However, many drugs used to treat disorders with no relation to heart disease can affect hERG’s function and cause potentially fatal side effects such as abnormal heart rhythms. 

The heart’s ability to pump blood depends on coordinated electrical activity

Professor Jules Hancox is looking for ways to design drugs without any hERG-related side effects. To do this, they need to understand precisely how different drugs interact with hERG. 

In many cases, these side effects are the result the drugs affecting the central ‘pore’ of hERG channel, where the ions (e.g. calcium and potassium) enter and exit. However it is not always the case, as drugs might also be able to interact with hERG at other levels. 

In this project, Professor Hancox and his team intend to use computer-based models, combined with lab experiments, to investigate whether drugs can interact with hERG in different ways to those currently known. This could provide alternative routes for drug design that would eliminate the adverse reactions that are seen with current drugs.

  • Read our Drug Cabinet articles to learn more about heart medication.

4. We want: to use fewer animals in blood-clot research

We invested: £90,000 to Dr Alan Harper at Keele University

Red blood cells

To understand blood clotting, scientists have developed a way to watch the process in anaesthetised mice, following damage to their blood vessels. These studies have provided valuable insights to help us understand how blood clotting happens normally and in disease, but the technique does not perfectly reproduce the processes that happen in the human body and the anaesthetic used may affect the clotting response. 

The current technique does not perfectly reproduce the processes that happen in the human body

The BHF is funding a PhD student in Dr Alan Harper’s laboratory to create an alternative way to study clotting that does not involve animals. They have already managed to grow artificial human blood vessels in which platelets – the main cells involved in clotting – can be switched on. In this project they will further develop the prototype blood vessels to make sure that they can make the blood form clots when exposed to blood samples from healthy human volunteers. 

They will then develop a ‘flow chamber’ that mimics blood in the human body. This will provide a realistic replica of a human blood vessel, which can then be used to recreate the same experiments currently done in mice. If it works, they will have found a more accurate way to study clotting in humans, which can reduce the number of mice used in these types of experiments.

5. We want: to understand why you’re at higher risk of cardiomyopathy during pregnancy and after childbirth

We invested: £186,095 to Dr Pardeep Jhund at University of Glasgow

Pregnancy medical check-up

Peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM) is a heart muscle condition that affects women during pregnancy or soon after having a baby. PPCM is linked with a high risk of serious heart and circulatory conditions, including cardiac arrest, heart failure and blood clot formation. The diagnosis is often life changing. 

PPCM is linked with a high risk of serious heart and circulatory conditions, and the diagnosis is often life changing

But there is currently no UK or European data on PPCM. The number of women affected, how and why it develops, and what can affect the outcome for both the mother and baby are not fully understood. Dr Pardeep Jhund at the University of Glasgow wants to change this by analysing maternity data in Scotland from the past three decades (1986-2016).

He will study hospitalisations in Scotland of women diagnosed with PPCM, other cardiomyopathies or heart failure. This information will be linked to maternity, birth and death records. 

By analysing these data, the team will be able to look for common features of the mothers admitted with PPCM, the short- and long-term health and death rates of mothers and babies, and the health of any further pregnancies. This information can then be compared with the general population. 

Dr Jhund hopes to find out how many women are affected by PPCM and what increases your risk of developing it. 

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