How did you get into science?
I wasn’t always into science. I was much better at languages and social sciences at school and actually was quite bad at science!
However, I had a bit of a breakthrough moment when I was studying chemistry, things started to fall into place and I got really into it. From there, I got into human biology, which I found much more interesting and so I went off to study Pharmacology (understanding how drugs work) at university.
Have you been personally affected by heart disease?
I’m originally from Scotland, which to this day still has high rates of heart disease and death associated with cardiovascular complications. My grandfather has had bypass surgery and my mum had high blood pressure. In fact, I’m sure that most people will know at least one person who has some form of heart condition.
I think there’s still a real stigma attached to people with cardiovascular disease. It’s often thought that only people who smoke or have a bad diet or don’t exercise enough suffer from heart disease. Of course, these factors do not help, but they are not the only cause. Because heart disease can affect so many people for so many different reasons, we must continue our research to help as many people as we can.
Can you tell us a bit more about this project?
We’re looking at a small protein that is made by neutrophils, called tumour necrosis factor, and the role it plays in tissue swelling.
Tissue swelling is a normal reaction to infection and injury. It’s part of the body’s response to help get things back to normal. Swelling happens when fluid normally present in the blood moves from inside the blood vessel to the surrounding tissues.
This fluid carries with it essential protective components to repair the damaged area. However, sometimes this swelling can be triggered inappropriately or there’s a failure to stop the process in good time. It’s this type of swelling that can be damaging for patients with heart disease.
What is the impact of this in heart patients?
When someone has a heart attack or stroke, the heart or brain tissue can become inflamed and this encourages fluid to leak from the blood and into the affected organ. Development of swelling impairs proper recovery and can stop these organs from working effectively.
Patients who have more swelling tend to take longer to get better and don’t recover as well as those with less. They might also have a greater risk of developing more serious conditions following heart attack, such as heart failure.
We’re trying to work out the fundamental biology of how neutrophils and the substances they release can cause the formation of leaky blood vessels. Using this information, we may one day be able to think of new ways to block this inappropriate activity, which would hopefully allow patients to get better faster.
3D reconstruction of an inflamed post-capillary venule (a small type of vein). The green cells are the neutrophils.
How far along is this project?
We’re still at quite an early stage, but we’re starting to uncover some really interesting results. We’re “basic biologists”, which means that we are working in the lab to understand how blood vessels behave under healthy conditions and also how they become leaky during disease.
By understanding the fundamental biology of these processes, we can then build on this to think of ways we can target these processes with drugs or other treatments in the future.
You also did a PhD which we helped to fund?
Yes, the BHF funded my PhD in the BHF Centre for Cardiovascular Research Excellence at Kings College London.
There I was interested in understanding how sensory nerves communicate with blood vessels to keep them healthy, and how this communication becomes altered with ageing and in diseases such as high blood pressure.
I was especially interested in how these nerves regulated the development of blood vessel inflammation.
You’re very enthusiastic about blood vessels…
I am! I’ve been working with blood vessels almost exclusively throughout my training and now my research career.
I started off looking at blood vessels as part of a summer studentship during my undergraduate degree at University of Glasgow, where I was stimulating them with various drugs and watching them twitch and contract in response.
To be able to see that biology was happening right in front of my eyes was amazing and from there my fascination with blood vessels just grew.
What do you want to do after this project?
Of course, there’s no such thing as the ‘end’ of a research project and I am sure many more questions will spring up along the way as we uncover new answers, which is part of why research is so exciting. Ultimately I’d like to continue researching in the field I am currently in and one day hopefully become an independent researcher with my own lab.
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