Hidden heroes of BHF research

BHF research is rigorously scrutinised so we get the most out of the money you donate. Lucy Trevallion meets four people who work behind the scenes to make this happen.

Hidden heroes of research - Phillipa Major, Kelvin Pitman, Noel Faherty and Professor Jill Pell

Read about:

Philippa Major - Centre Coordinator at BHF Centre of Research Excellence, University of Oxford 

BHF Centres of Research Excellence bring researchers from different fields together to find pioneering solutions to heart and circulatory disease. We’ve made multi-million-pound investments at six top UK universities for cardiovascular research. Philippa coordinates our Oxford centre. 

How have you been involved in research in the past? 

After a biology degree, I started my career as a researcher. My first job was investigating kidney transplant rejection. From then on I wanted my job to have a link to real solutions in healthcare. 

What’s your role now? 

Allocation of the money is carefully considered, it is well spent, and I like supporting that

The centre gives quite flexible funding to researchers who want to try really new, innovative ideas. On a typical day, I meet people who are looking to apply and advise them, liaise with researchers about application deadlines, and  keep track of our finances. We split our funding three ways. Part of it goes towards training researchers, part for blue sky thinking (small awards to try out a really new idea), and part to fund infrastructure and equipment. 

Philippa Major

What are the highlights and challenges of your role?

It’s very powerful that BHF funding pulls together all researchers who have the same aim: beating heart and circulatory disease. Researchers can see how their research fits with other potential new collaborators across the same university and beyond. Allocation of the money is carefully considered, it is well spent, and I like supporting that. Small ideas can make a big difference for people with heart disease; you can really see ideas moving on. Of course, research is a risk – you could never make sure everything has a recognisably useful end point, but that research is still useful in itself. 

It can be challenging when everyone isn’t in agreement about what to fund, but I think the lead academics at the centre work hard and do a good job with their decisions.

Kelvin Pitman - Lay Member, BHF Clinical Studies Committee

Kelvin is one of two patient representatives on our Clinical Studies Committee, which decides that clinical studies the BHF should fund. He’s part of a group of patients what looks at our research and gives views on which projects would most help patients and which trials patients may volunteer for. This is part of the BHF’s mission for our work to be informed by the needs of patients.

What motivated you to get involved?

I’m a polymer chemist by training and used to work in research. Also, my dad was one of the first people to have an artificial aortic heart valve in 1966. So I’m doubly interested: in both the research and in heart and circulatory disease.

Do you have a heart condition?

I had a heart attack just over 10 years ago, was treated and was fine for about five years, then gradually got atrial fibrillation. I had cardioversion procedures, and got a combined pacemaker and ICD.

Kelvin Pitman

How did you get involved with the panel?

I was already a patient rep for the BHF on some other projects, because I wanted to use my experience to make things better for other patients.

Clinical studies are about how it will directly affect patients. One of these treatments could benefit me or people like me in the future

And then I got an email from the BHF inviting me to apply for the research panel, which I did. Twelve of us were chosen, and two of us were chosen as primary representatives, including me.

What’s it like being on the panel?

Every clinical study application will be assessed by two people from our group of patients. They’ll make comments on how it would benefit patients, and how patients might react to being asked to be recruited. We bring our insight as patients to help the studies be designed in a better way, so researchers are more likely to get the participants they need.

Myself and another lay member send feedback to the researcher, either constructive criticism or asking for more information. They have four weeks to write a response, and then we look at it to see if they’ve answered our questions fully, and feed back with the main research panel.

I find it very exciting. In research there’s a whole lot of blue sky thinking, but clinical studies are about how it will directly affect patients. One of these treatments could benefit me or people like me in the future.

Noel Faherty - BHF Senior Research Adviser

Noel is on the research funding team at BHF head office, working on BHF fellowship grants. These grants grow future leaders of cardiovascular research. Unlike our other research funding, those who apply for a fellowship are assessed not only on the quality of their research, but also on whether they are someone whose career we want to support.

What’s your current role at the BHF?

When researchers apply for fellowships to fund their careers, I find qualified scientists to judge the application and say whether they would fund them. Generally, applicants should allow six to nine months for a decision. It can be a nerve-racking wait, but I help them through the process.

What are the highlights of this role?

It’s good to see people being supported by the BHF the whole way through their career. This can inspire the next generation of cardiovascular researchers, showing them you can be supported by us and do great things. I’m not quite a career coach, but I help researchers before and after they apply for funding with us.

Noel Faherty

Do you have first-hand experience of BHF research?

I did an undergraduate degree in science back in Ireland, and followed it up with a PhD on diabetes and the kidneys. I then found a job as a researcher on a BHF-funded project in Oxford, looking at something similar in the heart for three years. I applied for research projects and didn’t get them. It’s given me sympathy for other researchers; you have to get used to being told “no” 90 per cent of the time.

We’re very careful that we fund “the best people doing the best research” – that’s the catchphrase we use

It was great being in the lab, getting to try out and discover new things. Oxford is understandably a very competitive place for researchers, and I realised that if I couldn’t stay in the lab and do the science myself, I would like to help other people do science that matters.

What motivates you?

There are really bright people out there that we want to give a chance to. We’re very careful that we fund “the best people doing the best research” – that’s the catchphrase we use.

What are the challenges?

One challenge is the pressure to spend carefully: our team looks at the cost of research and makes sure ours is good value for money. We ask people who review the applications to look at costs, and we can go back and tell the researcher: “This cost doesn’t seem clear; can you do that for less?” We ask people for their guidance and advice, and their help means that the research we fund has a big effect. Heart and circulatory disease is still a growing epidemic; we can only fight it by funding research.

Professor Jill Pell - Director of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow

Our research committees meet four times a year and are made up of world-leading academics and researchers, who assess our research applications. Professor Pell is a member of our Chairs and Programme Grants Committee, which looks at applications for high-value, long-term investments. She was previously Professor of Epidemiology at the Glasgow BHF Research Centre, and is a Fellow of the European Society of Cardiology.

Her research into the impact of smokefree legislation was voted the most important research discovery of the year by the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association. In 2017, she was made a CBE for services to public health.

Why were you interested in being a BHF committee member?

I wanted to support the work of the BHFfor both professional and personal reasons. As a public health researcher, I have a longstanding interest in the prevention of heart and circulatory disease. I also have a personal interest in supporting the work of the BHF, as my brother suffered sudden cardiac death aged 53 and my mother and maternal grandmother died from heart and circulatory disease.

Why is research so necessary?

There isn’t a ‘them and us’ approach to the applicant and funder relationship; the BHF works with the research community

The benefits of heart and circulatory disease research are evident from our successes. Deaths from heart and circulatory disease have fallen in all developed countries, including the UK, due to improvements in prevention and treatment. However, globally, chronic diseases such as heart and circulatory disease have overtaken infectious diseases as the main cause of illness and death in developing countries. They are an increasingly important threat to global health.

Professor Jill Pell

What are the challenges in your role?

The range of research supported by the BHF inevitably means that, while you are expert in some areas, you are also out of your comfort zone when some applications are discussed. Thankfully, the committee comprises a wide range of expertise so all applicants get a fair review of the importance of their research.

What have been some highlights?

I have been impressed by the supportive culture in the BHF towards the research community. The BHF is keen to ensure that the best possible research is undertaken. There isn’t a ‘them and us’ approach to the applicant and funder relationship; the BHF works with the research community.

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