Improving heart failure treatment through research

8 September 2014        

A portrait of Professor Peter Weissberg, the BHF Medical Director.

Following an article in the Sunday Express, our Medical Director, Professor Peter Weissberg, talks about heart failure research, and why that sometimes needs to involve animals.

The story for heart patients has improved dramatically in recent decades. Most people who have a heart attack now survive to go home to their families. But many are left with permanently damaged hearts and a condition known as heart failure.

People with heart failure have hearts that can’t properly pump blood around their bodies. It can be a disabling condition – leaving people housebound and unable to do the simplest exercise, like climb the stairs. For patients diagnosed with severe heart failure the chances of surviving for more than five years are worse than many forms of cancer. Richard’s story shows the devastating impact severe heart failure can have on a person’s quality of life. Sadly Richard passed away last year.

We’ve made a promise to the hundreds and thousands of people with heart failure that we’ll do everything we can to make sure they live longer, healthier lives. Alongside our support for specialist heart failure nurses, funding groundbreaking research is key to delivering on this promise.

Finding a life-saving treatment

One way of helping a person with severe heart failure is to fit a biventricular pacemaker. This treatment, known as cardiac resynchronisation therapy (CRT), can help the heart pump blood more effectively. But the therapy doesn’t work in all patients and the researchers believe it could be much more effective at relieving symptoms.

Following independent review, our Fellowships Committee approved funding for the study mentioned in the Sunday Express because it could improve CRT. Before enhancements in the technology can be trialled in people with heart failure, they must be optimised in animals. This means that when the treatment is trialled in heart failure patients, who are unwell, we know we’ve done all we can to make sure it’s safe and working as well as it possibly can.

The overwhelming majority of animal research that we, and other medical research charities fund, involves small animals such as mice and zebrafish. But in some cases that kind of study would not give the answers necessary for scientists to have robust, reliable information to help people.

Large adult dogs were necessary for this study because their hearts are a similar size to ours and because their ‘electrical wiring’ behaves much like ours. Experiments in smaller animals would not allow direct translation to humans. This study offers the best chance to predict how pacemakers might improve heart function before trials in heart failure patients.

Our commitment on animal research

We only fund research involving animals where there is no alternative and we’re committed to reducing the number of animals in research. Every application we receive from researchers goes through rigorous independent peer-review and, if that application involves animals, it must also be approved by an animal ethics committee. We require researchers to apply the highest standards of welfare for animals whether working in the UK or overseas.<

We reject funding applications involving animal research where any kind of scientific or welfare standards may be compromised. We require animal research to be undertaken by people expertly trained in looking after animals, including the administering of pain relief and anaesthetic to minimise any distress suffered.

Funding future breakthroughs

Funding animal research is not a decision we take lightly. But the majority of lifesaving medical advances millions of heart patients benefit from today involved animal research. And, for the foreseeable future, many of the next big breakthroughs that could help millions more will also require animals.

Read our policy on animal research and download or order our leaflet.

You can help us beat heart failure by donating to our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal.