Driven to find a cure: research into heart failure

Sam Boateng

Sam Boateng's wife thinks he's a workaholic. But, as he tells Sarah Brealey, he just wants to solve the complex problem of heart failure, which has killed his own family members.

Sam Boateng has seen close members of his family die from heart problems, or living with the debilitating effects of heart and circulatory disease.

He says: “My grandmother and cousin suffered from heart failure, which cost them their lives. My mother has heart failure and my dad had a stroke. I have seen what it is like to have cardiovascular disease and I know the impact that it can have on families, as well as the economic impact on society and the NHS.”

I have seen what it is like to have cardiovascular disease and I know the impact that it can have on families

It’s this that drives Sam to work long hours in the lab. He says: “Heart failure affects so many people. It’s such a complex problem – it has taken decades and we still don’t understand it – that you feel you need to spend so much time on it that it can take over your life. My wife thinks I am a workaholic, but I don’t think so!”

“It’s not the money that drives me. If I didn’t have a job doing this then I would still do it as a hobby. I am fortunate that it puts food on the table, but that’s not the reason I do it.”

Sam has a two-year-old daughter, and his wife is expecting twins this March. He says: “I know I have to go home at the end of the day, but it is hard to get a good balance. I have been working a lot harder to make up for the time off I will take when the twins are born.”

Understanding causes of heart failure

Sam is studying the effect on the heart muscle if it experiences a high workload, such as if someone has high blood pressure, or if a heart attack has damaged part of the heart. Situations like these can lead to heart failure.

He’s researching proteins in the heart which act like sensors, detecting increases in how hard the heart is having to work. He says: “The heart should be able to detect the stress and respond to it by increasing pumping ability to meet the requirements. When the heart is put under long periods of stress, those sensors become dysfunctional; they start to behave abnormally and then the heart is longer able to react to stress the way it should do. Then you get into a downward spiral that leads to heart failure.”

Researchers have already have done work on failing human hearts that shows these sensors are not working in the way they should do. The next question is how and why the sensors go wrong following prolonged stress.

He says: “The idea is that understanding the mechanism that leads to disease will help with both prevention and future cure.”

Personal example

His family experience and professional knowledge have given him a strong belief in trying to prevent heart disease.

“I have always believed that prevention is better than cure. There are different factors that increase your risk for heart failure. Some are genetic but the majority are down to your lifestyle. We could make a huge difference to our risk by changing the way we live, for example by exercising more and eating a better diet.”

Sam also applies this knowledge to himself. He says: “I think it would be really bad if I had all this information and didn’t use it. I try to go to the gym regularly, I have increased the amount of exercise I do. I have also tried to make changes to my diet.

I know that because of my family history I am at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes

“I know that because of my family history I am at increased risk, not just of cardiovascular disease but also of diabetes – my dad has diabetes which means that my own risk is higher.

“Some people do have a genetic predisposition to CVD, for example the black community are much more likely to develop high blood pressure, which is a risk factor. In Asian populations they are much more likely to have type II diabetes, which is another risk factor for CVD.

“So your genes have an impact on your risk of getting cardiovascular disease, but the way the genes are expressed can be influenced by your lifestyle. This might mean that instead of getting the disease at 50, you get it when you are in your 70s because of the changes you have made.”

Sam also does school visits and other outreach work, explaining to young people how they can reduce their own risk of heart and circulatory disease. He says: “I think we should do more things like school assemblies, to try to inform young people that the seeds of the disease begin when you are young. When you look at the arteries of a young person you can see fat being deposited, although it doesn’t start to produce symptoms until people are in their 30s or 40s or 50s. If young people start reducing the amount of crisps and chips and other fatty and sugary foods in their diet, it will make a difference later on."

Read more about healthy eating

BHF support

Sam was funded by the BHF for his PHD, and his current research is also funded by the BHF. Reading’s Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research, where he is based, has also recently been funded with a £500,000 infrastructure grant from the BHF.

He says: “We think it says a lot about the work we are doing that the BHF has given us this kind of support. The BHF have been critical in funding my research career and I hope we will use the money wisely."

He adds: “I would say to people, please support the BHF, because your money will make a difference. Death rates from cardiovascular disease have gone down in recent decades and that is mainly because of research that has been done. Much of this has been supported by the BHF, the biggest funder of cardiovascular research in the UK. So please support the BHF, and help in the fight against this problem.”

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Sam’s CV

1988 - 92 Brunel University, Biochemistry degree

1993 - 1998 Imperial College London, PHD in biochemistry, looking at drug treatments for heart failure

1998 - 2007 University of Illinois, postdoctoral researcher and then Assistant Professor

2007 - present University of Reading, RCUK Fellow and then Lecturer in Biomedical Science

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