Why did this man go 6000 miles to find a heart disease cure?

Kinya Otsu with members of his team at King

Our Centres of Research Excellence attract internationally renowned researchers and are part of a global research community. Sarah Kidner talks to Professor Kinya Otsu who relocated from Japan to London’s King’s College.

Although it’s only a couple of years since Professor Otsu relocated here from Japan to become a BHF Professor of Cardiology, he already seems at home in the BHF Centre of Research Excellence at King’s College London. He brings with him an international reputation founded on 20 years working at Japan’s Osaka University.

The decision to relocate was, says Professor Otsu, “not very difficult”. This is partly due to the unique way that we fund the Centres of Research Excellence, which are designed to foster new talent, and multidisciplinary research departments.

Professor Otsu explains: “There are many people who come to London from all over the world. I wanted to be able to interact with that international research community, and also educate the international students who come here. The BHF Centre of Research Excellence has a good environment which means I can communicate with people with various specialties.

One of the fun parts of science is that we can interact and help each other

“Since I spent a lot of time in the US and Europe, I have many friends there who have become professors. I have good relationships with them and it means we can work together to develop new things. Our team can develop a model for disease and we use that model for cardiovascular research, but it can also be used for other diseases; many people ask to collaborate with us.

“One of the fun parts of science is that we can interact and help each other.”

Making the transition

The decision to move was made easier thanks to the support of BHF Professor Ajay Shah, who leads the King’s College Centre, and who approached Professor Otsu during an international conference hosted at the Centre of Research Excellence.

“It gave me a chance to see the faculty and, a couple of weeks later, Ajay asked me whether I wanted to come and work here,” says Professor Otsu.

As well as relocating himself, Professor Otsu has brought with him four Japanese team members. Three of them are former students. “We know each other very well – one of them, Dr Kazuhiko Nishida, was actually my first PhD student. “We have worked together for over 20 years so it’s fantastic he has decided to come with me. Ajay allowing me to bring my people made the decision to come easier.

“Kaz [Dr Nishida] is the only one who has experience of working abroad but the others seemed excited to work in a different culture, and to come here together.”

A successful start

Two months before the move, Professor Otsu came to set up his lab. It was, he says, an exciting day. “I bought everything using the BHF grant. I felt I could start a new laboratory and continue with my work.”

Professor Otsu has made great strides in his work looking at the mechanisms that underlie cell death in heart failure, a condition that affects more than 570,000 people in the UK. He has discovered a new clue to what that underlying cause may be and, in 2012, he and his team published the results of a study in the international research journal Nature. The study revealed a finding about inflammation (the build-up of immune cells) playing a role in heart failure.”

I appreciate those people who donate to the BHF because that money helped me set up the lab and recruit the right people

Their research showed that in mice, this problematic build-up of immune cells may actually be triggered by our own DNA. They found this culprit DNA was from structures in heart cells called mitochondria, which produce the energy the heart needs to pump.

“If we can find the molecule responsible for this inflammation, there’s a chance we can find a therapeutic treatment for heart failure,” says Professor Otsu.

“I appreciate those people who donate to the BHF because that money helped me set up the lab and recruit the right people. I’d like to say ‘thank you’,” he says. “I’m not doing research just for my interest; I’m doing it to help people. My goal is that we will have some new therapeutic treatments to help people living with heart failure within ten to 15 years.”

Find out about our Oxford Centre of Research Excellence and Professor Hugh Watkins’ work there

A student’s view

Trusha MistryTrusha Mistry is a BHF-funded PhD student researching heart failure. She has just started her second year working with Professor Otsu as her supervisor.

She says: “I was really interested in the project because someone very close to me suffered a heart attack and that’s what made me want to work in the field.

“It’s great having Kinya here because he has such vast experience. Even today, I was presenting some data and it’s great to have his opinion directing the possibilities of what I could be doing. You see the quality of the papers that have been published from the Centre of Research Excellence so it’s somewhere that I really wanted to work.”

Centres of Research Excellence

BHF Professor Hugh WatkinsTotal funding to date awarded by the BHF and areas of special interest

£11.9m Imperial College: World-leading stem cell researcher BHF Professor Michael Schneider and his team hope to come up with ways to reverse the damage caused by heart failure. Read about the work of an Imperial PhD student in this field.

£15m King’s College London: This centre is making great strides in understanding the structure of the heart at a molecular level. One of our newest BHF Professors, Kinya Otsu (above) from Japan, is researching new treatments for heart failure.

£3m University of Cambridge: BHF Professor Nick Morrell and his team are using innovative research approaches to find ways to prevent heart attacks.

£10.6m University of Edinburgh: Edinburgh’s Centre is identifying and exploring factors such as stress and exposure to air pollution, and the impact they may have on heart health.

£3m University of Glasgow: The funding will allow Glasgow scientists to investigate blood vessel damage that is caused by chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

£14.4m University of Oxford: World-leading regenerative medicine specialists at Oxford, like Professor Hugh Watkins (pictured), are coming up with ways to repair damaged hearts.

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