Research

Exploring blood pressure and broken heart syndrome: discover the research we’re funding

Between June and August 2018, we granted £11 million of funding for life-saving research. That’s 34 new research projects across the UK. Here are 5 of the most exciting projects we're funding.

31 October 2018

1. We want: to understand the link between bright spots on antenatal scans and cardiac disease in early childhood

We invested: £188,226 to Dr Lisa Hurt at Cardiff University

A mother-to-be holds up an ultrasound scan of her baby 

What do bright spots in pregnancy scans tell us about children’s hearts?

Each day in the UK, 12 babies are diagnosed with a heart defect that occurs as the baby develops in the womb. Pregnant women have an ultrasound scan when they are about 20 weeks pregnant, and nearly half of all serious heart defects are detected then.

Each day in the UK, 12 babies are diagnosed with a heart defect that occurs as the baby develops in the womb.

However, doctors aren’t sure if some of the things seen on this scan mean that the baby has a heart problem. For example, sometimes bright spots – called echogenic foci – can be seen in the baby’s heart, but it’s unclear if they are significant.

Dr Lisa Hurt and her team will now look back at the five-year medical records of a group of children who had bright spots on their scans, and children who did not. They will determine if children with these spots had more heart problems. They will also examine if having more spots, or spots in certain areas of the heart, made any difference to their heart health.

The results of this study will give doctors a much better guide on how to care for mothers and babies if bright spots in the heart are seen in the 20 week scan. If the bright spots are found not to be linked to future heart problems, it will help to give families a great deal of reassurance.

  • What if three of your family have congenital heart disease? Read about how the Symonds family cope through the toughest of times.
  • Read about Professor Massimo Caputo and his work to repair the hearts of children born with congenital heart disease.

2. We want: to reactivate cells' healing properties in people with type 2 diabetes

We invested: £173,405 to Dr Richard Cubbon at University of Leeds

A cross-section of stem cells

A cross-section of stem cells in the body

Type 2 diabetes affects more than 1 million people in the UK, most of who are unable to control their blood sugar because they don’t respond to the hormone insulin. This is called ‘insulin resistance’, and can damage blood vessels, leading to heart and circulatory problems like heart attack and stroke.

With this funding the researchers will test a new, more controlled approach, which allows the stem cell activity to be switched on or off using a common medicine.

Stem cells taken from the person’s own blood, and then grown in the lab, offer potential as treatments to heal injured blood vessels. However, research shows that stem cells from people with insulin resistance are much less capable of this healing role. 

Exciting research by Dr Cubbon and colleagues has already uncovered a way to reactivate these cells’ healing properties. However, their original method permanently changed the stem cells so they were constantly active, and this could have dangerous side effects.

With this funding the researchers will test a new, more controlled approach, which allows the stem cell activity to be switched on or off using a common medicine. They will test these stem cells in experiments that mimic the blood vessel injuries that occur in diabetes.

The researchers hope that this project will bring them closer to their quest to use stem cells to heal injured blood vessels in people with complications caused by diabetes.

3. We want: to explore further treatment for those diagnosed with broken heart syndrome

We invested: £298,134 to Dr Dana Dawson at University of Aberdeen

Broken heart syndrome 

Stress-induced cardiomyopathy – also known as ‘broken heart syndrome’ and ‘takotsubo syndrome’ – is a rare condition where major emotional stress causes symptoms like a heart attack, without blockage of the coronary heart arteries.

People with stress-induced cardiomyopathy usually recover well after their initial attack but can go on to develop heart failure, a condition where the heart is not pumping blood around your body as effectively as it should.

People with stress-induced cardiomyopathy usually recover well after their initial attack but can go on to develop heart failure

In this pilot project, Dr Dana Dawson and her team will explore if they can improve heart health of people with this condition through prescribed physical activity or psychological interventions.

Volunteers who’ve had a recent episode of broken heart syndrome will be prescribed either a three-month schedule of exercise or mental wellbeing training. The researchers will monitor if either course of treatment helps patients’ hearts to recover and will compare the outcome with standard of care.

This trial will indicate whether these two practical and inexpensive rehabilitation programmes could help people with broken heart syndrome, for whom no treatment currently exists.

4. We want: to understand how the immune system affects patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

We invested: £1,650,405 to Professor Hugh Watkins at Oxford University, John Radcliffe Hospital

A cross-section of muscle fibres in the heart

A cross-section of muscle fibres in the heart.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, is a heart muscle disease that can run in families. It can lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, palpitations, and lightheadedness and increases the risk of both young and older people dying suddenly.

Over the last 20 years, scientists including BHF Professor Watkins and his team have identified some of the faulty genes that can cause this condition. As a result of these breakthroughs, potential treatments to prevent the condition developing are being investigated.

This research has the potential to reveal clues about the immune system’s role in HCM, including how scarring occurs.

Unfortunately it is unlikely that these potential treatments will help patients who already have the disease.

Professor Watkins and his team want to understand how the abnormal heart muscle cells affect the other surrounding cells and result in inflammation and scarring. They have evidence that immune cells have complex influences on other cell types in the heart and that they can contribute to the damage that occurs in HCM.

But it is also known that immune cells are also important in limiting or repairing damage to the heart muscle through other mechanisms. The team will study inflammation in HCM to identify which elements of the immune system are responsible for these changes.

This research has the potential to reveal clues about the immune system’s role in HCM, including how scarring occurs. This understanding could reveal new ways to treat this condition and help people who already have HCM-associated changes in their heart muscle.

5. We want: to understand why there is a gender difference in deaths from coronary heart disease

We invested: £119,453 to Professor Iain Greenwood at St George's, University of London

A woman has her blood pressure taken 

In the UK nearly one in seven men die from coronary heart disease, compared to one in twelve women. The reasons underlying this gender difference are not fully understood, but Professor Iain Greenwood’s team at St George’s are working to solve this puzzle.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. Blood pressure is partly controlled by how much the muscle cells in the blood vessel walls contract, making the vessel narrower.

In the UK nearly one in seven men die from coronary heart disease, compared to one in twelve women.

More contraction of the muscle means narrower arteries, which means the heart has to pump harder to move blood around the body and puts greater strain on the heart.

With BHF funding, this team has identified a protein on the surface of the muscle cells, called a Kv7 potassium channel, which helps to keep the muscle cells relaxed and therefore helps blood vessels to be more open.

The team have discovered that, in arteries from male rats with high blood pressure, these channels get degraded, leading to the muscle cells being more contracted and the blood vessels being narrower. However, in female rats the Kv7 channels are less degraded and function more normally.

The PhD student funded by this grant will work to unearth the reasons for this gender difference in blood pressure control, which could give new clues to help design new blood pressure medicines for both sexes.

More useful information