Research

Growing heart cells and boosting the benefits of exercise: Discover the research we're funding

A test tube during research

From November 2017 to February 2018 we granted £16 million of funding for life-saving research. That's 41 new research projects across the UK. Here are five of the most exciting projects we agreed to fund.

1. We want: to find the cause of congenital heart disease

We invested: £940,865 to Dr Duncan Sparrow at the University of Oxford

Woman having an ultrasound during pregnancy

Congenital heart disease is the most common human birth defect, affecting around one in 100 babies born in the UK. Heart defects can occur because of a “mistake” in a gene, or for a range of other reasons to do with conditions while the baby is developing. This can include exposure to smokingalcohol or certain medications. Some disease, including rubella and diabetes, can also increase the risk.

However, no one currently knows how these factors lead to heart problems.

Dr Sparrow’s research could shape the advice given to women who are planning a pregnancy

In previous research Dr Sparrow has shown, in mice, that low oxygen levels in the womb can lead to heart defects in the developing baby. Digging into the reasons for this, he discovered that a normal biological response to low oxygen interferes with the production of the stem cells that form the developing heart.

He believes that this biological response to low oxygen may be triggered by other environmental factors (such as having low iron levels), and he will now investigate this in mice.

Dr Sparrow’s research will help us to identify factors that raise the risk of heart defects, and could shape the advice given to women who are planning a pregnancy.

2. We want: lab grown heart cells to be more like the real thing

We invested: £115,558 to Professor Molly Stevens at Imperial College London

A researcher with cell cultures

Scientific advances mean it’s now possible to grow heart cells in a lab, using stem cells (a type of cell with the unique ability to develop into any other kind of cell in the body).

Lab grown cells could help heart patients in a number of ways. For example, to create replacement heart tissue to repair the damage caused by a heart attack, or to test new medicines before advancing to clinical trials.

This work could help to unlock the potential of lab-grown heart tissue to speed up drug discovery and repair damaged hearts

However, there is a practical problem that is hampering progress. When grown in the lab, it is hard to make the cells organise themselves into lines, like real heart muscle does. This stops the lab-grown heart muscle from beating properly. Cells also tend to form into different sized groups, which can lead to inaccurate conclusions when researchers are testing medicines.

But Professor Molly Stevens' team have shown they can control the arrangement of lab-grown cells using ultrasound. This can be used to make areas of high and low pressure, which can very quickly move heart cells into uniform groups or orderly lines.

Their goal now is to show that ultrasound is safe and effective for this use. They want to show that it produces a more accurate model for testing medicines, and that ultrasound can help to engineer heart muscle that beats more like real heart muscle.

This could help to unlock the potential of lab-grown heart tissue to speed up drug discovery and repair damaged hearts.

3. We want: to find a protein that could help increase the benefit of exercise

We invested: £1,383,429 to Professor David Beech at the University of Leeds

A person cycling

In the UK, too few of us achieve the recommended level of physical activity to protect our heart. This is a complex problem, and addressing it requires a wide range of solutions.

We know that exercise protects and improves our arteries and our heart health, but we know surprisingly little about what happens inside the cells of your body to give this protective effect.

They think Piezo1 might detect our blood flow, and ‘switch on’ the exercise response to protect against artery disease

In 2014 Professor Beech and his team in Leeds discovered that a protein called Piezo1, present in the cells that line our arteries, is a blood flow sensor. They think Piezo1 might detect our blood flow, and ‘switch on’ the exercise response to protect against artery disease.

The researchers will study mice that possess a modified Piezo1 gene and can exercise on a wheel. Using cutting-edge microscopy and biochemical techniques the team will study how Piezo1 detects increased blood flow during exercise, and how this affects artery and heart health.

They will then see if, by generating new chemicals which control Piezo1, they can increase the health gains from exercise.

4. We want: better treatment for heart failure and atrial fibrillation

We invested: £172,818, for research led by Dr Davor Pavlovic at the University of Birmingham

ECG results and a stethoscope

Digoxin is a common treatment for people with atrial fibrillation (AF) and is sometimes also used for heart failure. It is used to slow down your heart rate and reduce the strain the heart is under because, over time, this can wear out the heart muscle and lead to heart failure. But digoxin doesn’t always work as well as expected.

Dr Pavlovic and his team have already shown that hormones that are naturally present in the blood called cardiotonic steroids can interfere with the action of digoxin.

The results could lead to new methods to work out whether people with AF and heart failure would benefit from digoxin, and allow doctors to personalise their treatment

People with heart disease are known to have higher levels of these cardiotonic steroids, but the levels vary from one person to another. It is thought that these variations could explain why digoxin treatment works for some people, but not for others.

In this project, the team will find new ways to measure cardiotonic steroids in blood samples from patients, and will also study their effects on heart cells in the lab and from mice.

They will then use these new methods to run a clinical trial looking at ways to control heart rate.

They want to understand how different cardiotonic steroid levels could affect heart function in people with or without heart failure, who are taking digoxin or other heart rate control treatments.

The results could lead to new methods to work out in advance whether people with AF and heart failure would benefit from digoxin, and allow doctors to personalise their treatment.

5. We want: a way to prevent heart attacks and strokes in people with chronic kidney disease

We invested: £750,000 to Dr Hugh Gallagher at the University of Southampton

Packs of aspirin

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is common, particularly in the elderly. In some cases, it can lead to life-threatening kidney problems.

But the greatest health threat to most people with CKD is that it significantly increases their risk of heart attack and stroke. We don’t yet know enough about the best ways to reduce these risks, but some experts think that aspirin could help.

If the benefits of taking aspirin are found to outweigh the risks, this evidence could help three million people with CKD

This study will weigh up the benefits and risks of taking aspirin for people with CKD. Aspirin is commonly used to help prevent a heart attack in people who are at high risk due to having heart disease – for instance in those with angina. However, aspirin does come with some risks, such as increased risk of bleeding, so decisions about using it for prevention have to be taken very carefully.

This clinical trial, funded by the National Institute for Health Research and the BHF, will test whether low-dose daily aspirin can safely reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in around 23,000 people who have CKD but don’t have heart disease. Volunteers will be recruited through GP surgeries.

If the benefits of taking aspirin are found to outweigh the risks, this evidence could help three million people with CKD reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke. It could prevent thousands of life-threatening heart attacks and strokes each year. 

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