A heart attack happens when your heart muscle is starved of oxygen-rich blood. This causes damage to your heart muscle and can result in heart failure.
In the early 1960s many people did not get as far as a hospital after a heart attack. If they did and they survived, treatment was basic and largely confined to pain relief.
Past BHF Professor Michael Davies was one of the first scientists to clearly demonstrate that blood clots in the heart’s coronary arteries cause heart attacks. This revolutionary breakthrough in the 1970s paved the way for scientists around the world to look at why blood clots form, and to develop clot-busting ('thrombolytic') medicines to combat them.
Massive research studies led by BHF-funded scientists, involving tens of thousands of patients, proved that a combination of two clot-busting medicines given soon after a heart attack saves lives.
A team led by BHF Professor Rory Collins tested a combination of two medicines – aspirin and streptokinase, a clot-buster – which they suspected would be more effective for heart patients than any single treatment.
This new combination treatment reduced deaths among heart attack patients by around 40 per cent. The clinical trial - called ISIS2 - also found that the earlier this combination of medicines was given after a heart attack, the better the outcome for the patient.
This trial was completed in 1988 and a year later 68% of doctors we surveyed had switched to routine administration of the drugs for heart attack patients.
This treatment seems routine today and gives thousands of people every year the best chance of surviving a heart attack, but it was all down to pioneering work by our scientists.
These clot preventing drugs try to stop heart attacks from recurring. They work by blocking the action of platelets, small cells in the blood that prevent bleeding by clumping together and forming a clot at the site of injury. Although platelets are vital to stop bleeding from a wound, they can also form blood clots inside diseased blood vessels, blocking off the blood supply and causing heart attack or stroke.
BHF Professor Steve Watson and his team are expert platelet biologists: they study how platelets are activated, clump together and form clots.
Current clot preventing drugs are not effective for everyone and can cause an increase in bleeding after injury. Professor Watson’s work, studying the pathways that control platelet activity will help us develop improved clot-preventing medicines.
We also funded Dr Thomas Krieg and his team who, together with other colleagues, identified chemicals which could protect vital organs from long-term damage following a heart attack or stroke. The researchers hope the chemicals can provide a starting point for developing new injectable drugs that could be used to prevent some of the long-term damage caused by heart attack and stroke.
Eventually this work could reduce the impact heart attacks and strokes have on the thousands of survivors in the UK every year.
The 2014 Winner of Reflections of Research, our annual image competition for BHF-funded research was a detailed microscope image of a clot that looked more like an underwater coral reef than a deadly killer, from researchers at the University of Leeds.
Treating women differently
A BHF-funded study from the University of Edinburgh suggested that we should use different criteria to diagnose heart attacks in men and women, and that the use of a new test could double the diagnosis of heart attacks in women. With cardiovascular disease being the primary cause of death among women in the UK, this may represent an important breakthrough in the way we diagnose women with heart disease.
Support heart research
This research was only possible through generous donations from the public but there is still lots of work to do in the fight for every heartbeat.