9 research projects we’re funding on heart failure

Around 920,000 people are living with heart failure in the UK. At the moment, when your heart muscle is damaged by a heart attack, it can’t be repaired. We’re funding the country’s best scientists to find a cure. 

Here are some of the research projects we’re currently funding into heart failure

1. Regenerating heart muscle

Induced pluripotent stem cells under a light micrograph

Induced pluripotent stem cells under a light micrograph

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found evidence that human stem cells can develop normally to become heart cells. This could lead to finding ways to repair or grow new heart muscle that has been damaged as a result of a heart attack. This is part of a new branch of research known as regenerative medicine. 

2. Looking at chemical reactions

A close-up image of heart muscle showing beta adrenoreceptors (red) which detect the body's chemical signals to work harder, between heart muscle fibrils (green)

A close-up image of heart muscle showing beta adrenoreceptors (red) which detect the body's chemical signals to work harder, between heart muscle fibrils (green)

Your heart should beat faster when you exercise or are frightened, because certain chemicals released in the body send a signal to your cardiac muscle cells to work harder. In heart failure, the muscle cells in the heart which are responsible for the pumping of blood fail to work harder when exposed to these chemicals. Thanks to more than £1.1m of BHF funding, BHF Senior Research Fellow Professor Andrew Trafford and colleagues at the University of Manchester are studying the reasons why the muscle cells of the heart do not respond properly to these chemicals, and how certain treatments could affect heart cells.

We’re also funding Professor Trafford with £265,000 towards a state-of-the-art microscope to allow his team to study heart muscle cells in minute detail.  

3. Repairing the electrical pulse

 Artistic illustraction of electrical circuit in the shape of a heart

At the University of Manchester, we’re funding Dr. Katharine Dibb and colleagues who are studying t-tubules, deep grooves or foldings in heart cells that help spread the electrical pulse of a heartbeat. Heart failure can result in the loss of these structures, which can result in abnormal heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation. This research could lead to the development of new treatments to prevent dangerous heart rhythms from occurring. Dr Dibb’s team is also studying how t-tubules develop in newborn babies, which could also help develop new treatment for people with heart failure, as well as possible new ways to help babies with congenital heart disease.

4. Understanding why heart cells die

 Heart tissue death 4 days after a heart attack

Heart tissue death 4 days after a heart attack

Scientists at Kingston University are helping us to understand what causes heart cells to die in heart failure. This BHF-funded research will reveal more about the role of certain proteins in cell death in the damaged heart and how this is involved in the progression to heart failure.

5. Increasing energy levels in heart cells 

 Striated muscle fibres of the heart myocardium

Striated muscle fibres of the heart myocardium

Scientists at Oxford University are looking at new ways to treat heart failure by studying a molecule called creatine. This molecule helps to store and transfer the energy that heart muscle cells need to contract. Increasing the levels of creatine may protect heart muscle cells from damage and improve recovery following a heart attack. We’ve provided more than £1.6m towards this work, which could lead to new treatments in future. 

6. Treating breathlessness

 Bottle of prescription morphine pills

Researchers at the University of Hull are looking at the possible benefits of using morphine, a medicine used for pain relief, to help with breathlessness in heart failure patients. We already know morphine can help breathlessness in some patients with other conditions. We’ve provided £655,000 for Professor Miriam Johnson and colleagues to carry out a clinical trial on 346 patients with heart failure. 

7. Pacemaker therapy

 X-ray showing pacemaker

Researchers at Imperial College London are identifying a special type of pacemaker therapy. Currently, some pacemakers are helping hearts with failure to beat in a more synchronised way, reducing symptoms. But they may not completely synchronise the heartbeat, and so may not be as effective as it could be. If the new methods improve heart function significantly, they could be developed further to improve outcomes for patients with heart failure.

8. Fixing ‘stiff arteries’

 Illustration of heart and kidneys

Mild chronic kidney disease is very common, but raises the risk of heart complications, including heart failure. We’re funding Jonathan Townend and colleagues at the University of Birmingham £964,000 to carry out a clinical trial on how spironolactone, a type of diuretic used in the treatment of high blood pressure, can stop the arteries stiffening in patients with kidney disease, and prevent damage to their hearts.

9. Viagra as a treatment for heart failure

 Viagra pills

New research at the University of Manchester could potentially lead to breakthroughs which would help people affected by heart failure. BHF Senior Research Fellow Professor Andrew Trafford and his team have shown in the lab that heart cells from a failing heart survive longer when they receive a drug that blocks an enzyme called PDE5. The drug sildenafil, commonly known as Viagra, is normally used to treat erectile dysfunction. 
The researchers, funded by the BHF, are now looking to confirm whether the same drugs can also prevent abnormal heart rhythms, which are responsible for killing up to half of heart failure patients. They hope that these two studies, in animals, will then lead to clinical trials in people with heart failure.

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