Funding research excellence

BHF Professor Hugh Watkins

We’re funding six Centres of Research Excellence. One of them is at Oxford, where BHF Professor Hugh Watkins is based. He tells Sarah Kidner how this unique approach is helping in the fight against diseases of the heart and circulation.

We want the science that we fund to turn into treatments that can help people suffering from diseases of the heart and circulation, as soon as possible. That’s why we’re investing millions of pounds of your generous donations to fund six Centres of Research Excellence.

The six-year investment began in 2008 with an initial investment of £34m across four universities: two in London, one in Oxford and one in Edinburgh (see box below for details). Last year, we invested a further £24m and created two more centres, one in Cambridge and one in Glasgow.

The big advances come when you have researchers from different disciplines talking to each other

All the centres share common goals: to kick-start innovative research projects, and to attract and train world-class researchers from a multitude of backgrounds and fields.

“The big advances come when you have researchers from different disciplines talking to each other. When you get people with different mindsets looking at a problem, they can see the way forward,” says BHF Professor Hugh Watkins from the University of Oxford.

“That’s why one of the original goals of the BHF was to ensure that cardiac researchers worked with other biomedical researchers and non-biological scientists who can bring in new ideas and approaches.”

BHF Professor Hugh Watkins and his team have a specific interest in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that is usually inherited. Professor Watkins also helps lead a worldwide study to identify genes that increase the risk of early coronary heart disease. Genes for risk factors such as high cholesterol are being analysed in the DNA collected from tens of thousands of patients.

Scientific community

The centre, while not a physical building, unites researchers. “It brings together scientists from all different disciplines across Oxford,” says Professor Watkins. “And it means we have a pot of discretionary money that we can use to recruit really exciting new talent or people to fill gaps or bridge certain disciplines.”

The University of Oxford has embraced this ethos, with a graduate student scheme where this centre sets money aside to hire some of the city’s brightest chemistry students.

The students work on their PhDs under one chemistry supervisor and one cardiovascular supervisor. “As a result, we have some very bright chemistry students working in the medical area. You have students who are joint-supervised – where supervisors are working together who wouldn’t have previously – and all for quite modest funding,” says Professor Watkins.

They have used the funding to recruit at a more senior level, for example to bring in Dr Akane Kawamura as a Senior Fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Division of Cardiovascular Medicine. “She’d not really worked in the cardiac area before but could see there were many exciting opportunities here,” says Professor Watkins.

Ultimately, what we’re doing is getting really clever people working together to do fundamental work with innovative approaches

Dr Kawamura is, says Professor Watkins, one of many talented researchers who may not have focused on the field of cardiovascular research otherwise. “It’s very easy for me to point to individuals who are doing exciting work, who wouldn’t be working on cardiac disease or wouldn’t have made that transition from junior scientist to established researcher without the centre funding.”

Funding innovative research

The funding also helps to kick-start innovative research projects that could one day save lives. For example, Professor Watkins says they’ll use centre funding when they are “trying to understand the genes that make you a bit more or a bit less likely to have a heart attack.

“When we find these genes, they need a lot of sophisticated, experimental work to show that they are valid targets of future research. We compete for a one-year project and by the end of that year we have got enough data to go out to the peer review panel and say ‘here’s a grant proposal, will you now judge it and see if it’s worth further investment?’”

So why is it so important to have these Centres of Research Excellence? “Ultimately, what we’re doing is getting really clever people working together to do fundamental work with innovative approaches, which will yield tomorrow’s breakthroughs.”

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 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, as our feature above explains.

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