Family connection: Mike Dodd's research into heart failure

Mike Dodd

Mike Dodd tells Sarah Brealey how he came to do his "dream job" researching the condition that affects his father and which he carries the gene for himself.

A heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) runs in Mike Dodd’s family. The disease causes the muscle wall of the heart to become thickened, and can lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, and irregular heart rhythms, although not everyone gets symptoms. In a few cases it can cause sudden cardiac death.

The condition is usually inherited, and Mike’s father Ian has it, as do his cousins. It led Mike to become interested in cardiology, and then to what he describes as his “perfect job”, initially researching a PHD and now as a post-doctoral researcher at Oxford University with Dr Damian Tyler and BHF Professor Hugh Watkins, who has led the way in finding the genetic mutations that cause hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

He says the family connection spurs him on in his daily work: “I just think about my dad’s condition. And I also think about the number of people that suffer from heart conditions and the enormity of it.”

I think about my dad's heart condition, and the number of people that suffer from heart conditions

Mike and his younger brother do not show any signs of HCM, but genetic tests three years ago showed that they carry the gene that causes it. He now has check-ups every two years, but it doesn’t generally affect his life – although he had to stop competitive rowing.

Saving hearts

Mike works with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which uses powerful magnets to create detailed images of the inside of the body. In particular, he’s looking at the way the heart uses energy (see diagram at foot of page), and how this changes after a heart attack or in conditions such as diabetes or cardiomyopathy. Understanding this may lead to being able to save parts of the heart muscle after a heart attack.

He says: “We are looking at energy usage in the heart. At rest the heart generally uses 60-70% fat to power itself and the rest is sugar. There is evidence after a heart attack or in other conditions such as diabetes or cardiomyopathy, this switches around. This switch may be helpful as an initial response but harmful in the longer term. The heart almost reverts to a developmental stage, it is more like the developing foetal heart, it is as if it is trying to regrow, but it doesn’t work very well.”

One potential of this research is developing new treatments to protect parts of the heart after a heart attack.

“Parts of the heart will die after a heart attack, because they have been deprived of oxygen and good. But there are neighbouring parts of the muscle that may be affected but could potentially be recovered with the right treatment.”

He and his colleagues are also planning to test new drugs for heart failure in rats and mice, and are looking at rats with very high blood pressure to understand how hypertension can lead to heart failure. Hypertension can lead to hypertrophy, and at the same time the heart starts to power itself on sugar instead of fat.

He says: “Early on this looks fine but later the rats develop heart failure. We are not sure whether the metabolic change leads to heart failure or whether the underlying condition leads to heart failure. We are trying to get better results.”

Support from the BHF

BHF support has been extremely important

Mike says: “We are part of the BHF Centre of Research Excellence at Oxford. The idea is to collaborate with different groups across the university and try to combine our efforts.

“BHF support has been extremely important. I started in Oxford five years ago doing a PhD, funded by the BHF. I am now employed under a programme grant as a post-doctoral researcher, and we are part of the Centre of Research Excellence funded by the BHF. These three things have really helped me. The magnets I use are very expensive; the budget from the BHF means I am able to afford to do my research and take it down different routes. That is why I have done the London to Brighton bike ride five times and the Blenheim Palace half-marathon, to give something back.”

Mike’s CV

2001 - 05 Bachelor of Biochemistry University of Bath

2005 - 07 Master’s in Biochemistry, University of Bath

2007 - 08 Researcher at Powdermed Vaccines, Oxford

2008 - 12 PhD in heart research, University of Oxford

2012 - present BHF Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford

How Mike Dodd studies what fuel the heart is using during MRI experiments 

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