6 ways our research is fighting heart problems in women

Analysing genes in the laboratory

Our scientists are working hard to beat heart disease. Here are 6 projects we're funding which could help beat problems which affect women in particular.

A heart disease gene

A person's genes can influence their likelihood of developing heart disease. Freya Boardman-Pretty, a PhD student from University College London alongside Professor Steve Humphries, studied a group of genes previously linked to an increased risk of disease in the arteries. After comparing the genes, artery thickness and artery health of nearly 4000 men and women, the UCL team identified a gene which was associated with an increased risk of heart attack or stroke in women, but not men.

The gene, called BCAR1, is involved in many processes in the body that are affected by the female sex hormone oestrogen. The researchers believe that one version of the BCAR1 gene - the GG version – when combined with a women’s naturally occurring high oestrogen levels, could lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, men with the GG version of the BCAR1 gene do not seem to be affected.

Freya Boardman-Pretty, the PhD student who carried out the research, said: “We’ve known for a long time that risk factors for heart disease are different for men and women. If we can confirm that this gene is involved, and work out exactly how it leads to an increased risk of heart disease in women, it could become a new target for drugs in the future.”

Coronary artery structure

If we can work out exactly how it leads to an increased risk of heart disease in women, it could become a new target for drugs in the future

Freya Boardman-Pretty

The coronary arteries are important vessels which carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart. These arteries, alongside every other vessels in the body, are made up of three layers. Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) occurs when one or more of the inner layers of a coronary artery breaks away from the outer layer.

This means blood can collect and form a clot in the space between the layers, which can reduce the flow of blood through the artery and to the heart. 80 per cent of those with SCAD are women and 30 per cent are in their final trimester of pregnancy or have recently given birth.

With little known about SCAD, we awarded over £159,000 to Dr David Adlam at the University of Leicester, leading the UK’s first ever SCAD research project. Dr Adlam is creating a database of SCAD patients that he can use to identify clues about what causes the condition, how it could be diagnosed earlier and how best to treat it.

Can salt be beneficial?

Pre-eclampsia is a condition which involves a sudden onset of high blood pressure and protein in the urine in pregnancy. It affects up to six per cent of pregnant women, can be life-threatening to both mother and baby, and can only be cured by delivering the baby as quickly as possible.

Thanks to an Intermediate Basic Science Research Fellowship award of over £470,000 Dr Hiten Mistry and his team in Obstetrics & Gynaecology at City Hospital in Nottingham are looking at the role that salt plays in pre-eclampsia.

Normally, reducing the amount of salt in the diet of someone who is not pregnant reduces blood pressure. However, tests have shown that women in early pregnancy have lowered blood pressure in response to salt. Dr Mistry aims to see whether loss of salt could be the cause of high blood pressure in women with pre-eclampsia.

Understanding pre-eclampsia

It is thought that pre-eclampsia is partly due to the dysfunction of endothelial cells, the special cells which line blood vessels and are key to normal blood flow and vessel function.

We awarded Professor David Bates and co-workers at the University of Nottingham a three year grant of £213,000, to look at the role of various growth factors in pre-eclampsia. In particular Professor Bates will look at the effects of two proteins key to vessel growth and function: vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and placental growth factor (PIGF).

During a normal pregnancy PIGF levels increase, however in pre-eclampsia PIGF levels are markedly reduced. This research could help establish whether PIGF is important for good health during pregnancy and whether it could be developed into a new treatment for vulnerable mothers at risk of pre-eclampsia.

Hormones and hypertension

Around 6,500 people have been diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) in the UK. PAH involves high blood pressure in the arteries which supply the lungs with oxygen-rich blood and more frequently affects women. To compensate for poor blood flow causes by the pressure, the heart works harder which can lead to heart failure.

Professor Mandy MacLean, at the Glasgow Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, is looking at interactions between two hormones, serotonin and oestrogen, in PAH.  By understanding how different hormones are involved in PAH, new targeted treatments could be developed.

Sugars during pregnancy

Diabetes involves high levels of sugar in the blood which during pregnancy (gestational diabetes) can injure the vessel walls of both mother and baby and impair the flow of blood. Diabetes during pregnancy might also put the baby at risk of developing type two diabetes later in life.

With our award of £223,360, Professor Giovanni Mann and Dr Richard Siow at King’s College London are looking at how vessels in mothers and foetuses become damaged during gestational diabetes.

Professor Mann is using umbilical cord cells from mothers, exploring whether a compound contained in broccoli, called sulforaphane, can help restore normal blood vessel function and could reduce the risk of children developing diabetes later in life. With this pioneering work, researchers hope to find better ways of protecting the unborn baby from long-term damage following gestational diabetes.

As part of our new research strategy, we aim to fund more than half a billion pounds of new cardiovascular research. However, we’re only able to fund this research with the continued support of the UK public and our loyal supporters.

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