Four Years of Mending Broken Hearts

24 May 2015        

BHF Medical Director Professor Peter Weissberg

In 2011 we launched our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal with an ambition to end the suffering of hundreds of thousands of heart failure patient.  

Four years on, our Medical Director Professor Peter Weissberg talks about the progress we’ve made.

Someone has a heart attack in the UK every three minutes. During a heart attack, the heart is starved of oxygen and suffers damage that can never be repaired. Over time, this damage can lead to heart failure, which affects over half a million people in the UK.

Heart failure is a debilitating condition that can leave sufferers unable to climb stairs, wash themselves or carry out simple tasks. In its severest form, heart failure is a terminal illness and the only cure is a heart transplant.

50 years of the British Heart Foundation

When the BHF was started, there were no treatments for heart attack and most people died as a result. Now, thanks in large part to research funded by the British Heart Foundation, 70 per cent of people who have a heart attack survive. But this means more people than ever are at risk if developing heart failure. 

We have always thought of this damage to the heart as permanent. But over the last 20 years, a discipline called regenerative medicine has emerged showing signs of real hope in helping the heart to repair itself. 

To speed up progress in this area, we launched our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal in 2011 with the vision of finding a way of repairing the damage caused by a heart attack– the so called holy grail of cardiovascular research.

Four years of Mending Broken Hearts

Over the last four years, the generosity of our supporters has raised £25 million to fund this research. We’ve used this money to make huge strides towards possible treatments, particularly at the three world leading Centres of Regenerative Medicine that we’ve been able to set-up. 

In Scotland, researchers are investigating how to regenerate lost blood vessels in the heart, the London-led Centre is focused on using stem cells to develop treatments after heart attack and, across Oxford and Cambridge, teams of researchers are trying to unlock the heart’s dormant ability to heal itself.  

Although it’s just four years since the launch of the appeal we’ve made progress on a number of fronts from heart patches to hearts with the potential to repair themselves and, just this week, two research groups have revealed separate findings that could both provide a way to help heal damaged hearts after a heart attack. 

What's new this week?

BHF Professor Michael Schneider at Imperial College London has led a team of scientists that has managed to identify stem cells within the heart with the most potential to turn into functioning heart cells. Their work showed that these stem cells could potentially repair damaged heart muscle in mice. We’ve known for some time that stem cells might hold the potential for heart repair and this research identifies cells with the heart with the capacity to kick start the repair process. 

In the University of Oxford, BHF Professor Paul Riley has uncovered a completely new way to encourage the heart to repair – by targeting the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels that carries white blood cells around the body to fight inflammation and infection. 

The Oxford team have identified a protein that encourages extra lymphatic vessels to grow and amplify the healing processes that take place in the hearts of mice following a heart attack. 

Together, these results studies, both funded by the Mending Broken Hearts Appeal, strongly suggest that our hearts already contain cells with the capacity to repair damage, it’s just that they don’t do it on a large enough scale to be able to repair the amount of damage that occurs following a heart attack. Both results suggest that one day we may be able to develop drugs to boost this inherent repair mechanism.

These innovative approaches represent just two of the many ways in which scientists funded by the Appeal are approaching the problem of heart regeneration. Finding a cure for heart failure will not happen overnight but we are getting ever closer to Mending Broken Hearts. But we rely on the generous donations of our supporters to meet this urgent, unmet need. 

Mum-of-two Joanne Ward was left with heart failure in her thirties after suffering a heart attack. In 2011 she helped launch the Mending Broken Hearts Appeal. Find out more about what these breakthroughs mean to her.