Discovering new treatments for sepsis and reducing animal testing: discover the research we’re funding

Between September and November 2018, we granted £23m of funding for life-saving research. That’s 58 new research projects across the UK. Here are 5 of the most exciting projects we’re funding.

31st January 2019

1. We want: to discover new treatments for sepsis.

We’re investing: £189,320 to Professor David G Lambert at Leicester Royal Infirmary.

Sepsis bacteria in the blood stream

An illustration of sepsis, shown as blue rod-shaped bacteria, in the blood.

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition in which your immune system has an overwhelming response to an infection. If not treated quickly, blood pressure falls, which can lead to death as vital organs shut down because they do not receive the blood they need.

Professor Lambert and his team believe that a molecule called nociceptin, produced by immune cells during sepsis, can cause the blood vessels to relax, and could be the cause of the dangerous drop in blood pressure. They have previously shown that levels of this molecule are higher in the blood of people who have sepsis, and other researchers have shown that nociceptin makes sepsis worse in animals.

In this project, the team will simulate sepsis in human immune cells grown in the lab. They will then measure how much nociceptin is produced and which type of immune cells are making it.

They will then test how this molecule affects the contraction and relaxation of human blood vessels, which is required to maintain a healthy blood pressure.

If nociceptin is shown to have an important role, this could pave the way to develop drugs to block its effects, and potentially prevent sepsis from causing dangerous drops in blood pressure and organ damage.

2. We want: to uncover clues about stroke using a new brain scan.

We’re investing: £105,240 to Dr Jack Wells at University College London.

A woman holds up MRI brain scans

A stroke occurs when blood stops flowing to part of the brain. This is due either to a blockage or a tear in a blood vessel.

Many strokes are not as sudden as you might think – they are caused by a condition known as small vessel disease, which develops as a result of small changes in the small arteries and veins of the brain over several years. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know enough about these processes.

There are two key changes that are thought to be important in small vessel disease: firstly, how ‘leaky’ the brain’s blood vessels are; and secondly, the movement of fluid in special structures around these blood vessels. It has been very difficult to measure these changes in the brain, which has hampered our understanding of small vessel disease.

However, that is set to change with a new MRI brain scanning technique developed at University College London. With BHF funding they will now use this technique to study these changes in the brain’s blood vessels in mice.

By understanding changes in the brain’s circulation during the early stages of small vessel disease, researchers can begin to design and test treatments to slow or halt them. Hopefully this will lead to a new way to prevent the disability and deaths caused by strokes.

3. We want: to know whether the flu vaccine programme should be extended for heart attack and stroke prevention.

We’re investing: £119,905 to Dr Charlotte Warren-Gash at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Man wiping his nose with a tissue

The flu jab is currently offered to people over the age of 65, or those with certain medical conditions.

Currently, people over the age of 65 or with certain medical conditions are among those advised to have a flu jab each autumn. This includes people with chronic heart diseases, such as coronary heart disease or heart failure, and is because having a respiratory infection, such as flu or pneumonia, temporarily raises your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Now researchers are looking into whether people with heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, are vulnerable to flu-related heart attacks. If so, they want to investigate whether they might also need the protection of a flu vaccine.

The researchers will compare people with heart health risk factors to people not at high risk of heart disease, using health databases of rates of infection and subsequent heart attack or stroke. They will also look at people with risk factors who have had the flu vaccine.

The data from this study will inform public health policy for people who haven’t been diagnosed with a heart or circulatory disease, but are at increased risk of one. If they are shown to be vulnerable to heart attack or stroke following a respiratory infection, these groups may be added to the flu jab programme in future.

4. We want: to save more lives from cardiac arrest using CPR

We're investing: £256,700 to Professor Mark Peters at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health

Image of a person performing CPR on a dummy

How would you respond if you saw someone having a cardiac arrest?

When someone’s heart stops beating, pushing hard and fast on the front of their chest can save their live. This is called cardiopulmonary resuscitation – CPR. Some people may find it challenging to remember how hard to apply pressure and how often to give compressions. This is particularly true when performing CPR on a child.

While there are currently some devices that help instruct rescuers on chest compressions rates and depths, these are so far quite limited. Not only do they not adjust to the patient’s size, they also prevent rescuers being able to feel the up and down movements of the person’s chest beneath their hands.

With our investment, Professor Mark Peters and his team aim to develop a portable CPR-feedback-coach that’s small enough to fit in your pocket.

It’ll be thin and low-cost, and will also work out the best chest compression force for individual patients – and hopefully for children, too. They will initially be used in hospitals and other medical locations, but the hope is to eventually make them as widely available as possible to members of the public too.

To show that the device is safe and effective, Professor Mark Peters has joined forces with the world’s leading resuscitation research laboratory at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. If successful, the research will help get the device into trials with people, which means it could soon be helping those performing life-saving CPR.

5. We want: to reduce the use of animals in heart attack research

We’re investing: £90,000 to Dr Sarah Jones at Manchester Metropolitan University

Cells being studied under a microscope in a laboratory

Animal experiments are widely used in order to help develop new medicines and to test the safety of certain products before they’re used on humans.

Animals - usually mice - are currently used in research to examine the effects of potential medicines for heart attacks and strokes.

Heart attacks and strokes can occur when blood clots block one or more arteries in the heart or brain, killing millions of people around the world each year. It’s therefore vital for researchers to study in detail what happens in arteries before and after a heart attack and stroke, in order to prevent this.

We already follow the principles of the 3Rs - replacement, reduction and refinement of animals in research, which mean we avoid the use of animals wherever possible, minimise the number of animals used, and improve animal welfare. Now we’ve teamed up with The National Centre for the Replacement Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) to design new research methods that do not involve animals.

This project aims to reduce the use of animals in the study of blood clot formation and treatment in arteries. The researchers aim to re-create the conditions inside diseased human arteries in the lab, as close to the real thing as possible. They will use human blood, flowing through a synthetic blood vessel populated with human artery cells. They will compare results of experiments using this method with the current best methods to ensure it works well, or better.

By developing this method and showing that it works, they hope to create a technique that can be adopted by teams around the UK and the world. This could significantly cut the number of animals used in this important research area.

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