The mystery disease causing heart attacks in women

29 February 2016        

Category: Research

Angiogram showing SCAD vessel

A rare cardiovascular condition called SCAD is causing spontaneous heart attacks – mainly in women.  Thanks to the power of social media and your donations, SCAD survivors have teamed up with researchers in Leicester to launch the UK’s first SCAD clinical study.

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) is a rare yet devastating condition predominantly affecting young, healthy women. SCAD means the layers which form the coronary vessels of the heart tear away from each other. As a result, blood can collect between the vessel layers forming a blood blister which restricts or blocks blood flow to the heart. This leads to a SCAD heart attack.

A ‘normal’ heart attack is caused by build-up of fatty deposits on the vessel walls, which is entirely different to one caused by SCAD. With little known about this disease, research is key to unlocking its secrets.

Power of the peopleBecks Breslin and Dr David Adlam

Thanks to a group of determined SCAD survivors, the first ever UK clinical study, led by BHF-funded researcher Dr David Adlam at Glenfield Hospital and the University of Leicester, launched in 2014. The group, led by SCAD survivor Becks Breslin, found each other through social media and contacted Dr Adlam to help find answers. Together, Dr Adlam and Becks created the SCAD UK and Europe research portal, giving SCAD survivors from near and far an opportunity to share their stories and register as a participant in this pioneering trial. 

Watch our video about SCAD, and the importance of research like Dr Adlam's.

The first UK SCAD trial

With little known about why or how SCAD happens, Dr Adlam and BHF-funded research fellow Dr Abi Al-Hussaini are dedicated to shedding much needed light on this mysterious condition. To do so, the team are carrying out a number of clinical tests on SCAD patients and healthy volunteers.The tests include:

  • Skin biopsy to look at connective tissue, sometimes called the glue which holds vessels together
  • Ultrasound of neck and arm vessels to look at their structure, flexibility and response to increased blood pressure
  • MRI and CT scans to look at all vessels from the head down to the pelvis

Finding answers for patients

Talking about his research, Dr Adlam says: “We want to try and find answers for our SCAD patients and increase our understanding of this devastating condition. 

“Predominantly, these patients are young, healthy women. All of a sudden, they are stricken with a heart attack. We owe it to our patients to give them answers and let them move forward with their lives.”

What have they found so far?

Every day at Glenfield Hospital brings a new discovery. The research team have found that SCAD patients have extremely flexible vessels. Because of this, Dr Adlam is interested in looking at the genes of SCAD patients and their families, with the hopes of identifying flexibility genes which may be linked to the disease. Dr Al-Hussaini plans to look at whether female hormones, such as oestrogen and progesterone, play a role in the development of SCAD. Dr Al-Hussaini also found that surprisingly, if left to its own devices, SCAD can heal on its own with no sign of scarring. Despite this, the risk of it happening again, or why it happened in the first place, remains unclear.

What does the future look like?

The research team hope the trial can raise awareness of this disease with the aim of more doctors recognising SCAD. They also hope to develop more specific treatments for SCAD patients.

Becks Breslin, leader of the SCAD survivor group, says: "We're looking for answers - that's the common theme in our patient group. The British Heart Foundation gives us hope, through research, in finding the answers we need."

How can I help?

Almost 400 individuals have now signed up to Dr Adlam’s trial. But more help is needed. 

Register as a SCAD patient or a healthy volunteer.

We could only fund this pioneering SCAD research thanks to your donations. Please help us fund more life saving science.