High blood pressure can be caused by a tiny organ that senses oxygen levels in the blood, according to new research we funded with your donations.
Researchers at the University of Bristol discovered that this organ, which is no bigger than a grain of rice, can be targeted to treat high blood pressure. The organ is a pair of 'carotid bodies' in the neck on either side of the throat between two major arteries that feed blood to the brain.
As part of the study, published in the American College of Cardiology journal Basic to Translational Science, patients had one of these carotid bodies removed and experienced an immediate and sustained drop in blood pressure. This procedure was carried out on a small group of 15 people with high blood pressure as part of a pilot trial to see if the treatment was safe.
A potential game changer
Lead researcher Professor Julian Paton, whose research we have funded for many years, said: "Treating the carotid body is a novel approach and a potential game changer, as we believe we are reducing one of the main causes for hypertension in many patients.
"High blood pressure treatment typically tackles the symptoms targeting the end organs such as the heart, kidneys and blood vessels, and not the causes."
Find out more about Professor Paton's research in our Heart Matters magazine.
Sniffing out oxygen in the blood
The people who were successfully treated had naturally raised carotid body activity. At rest, they breathed more and had exaggerated breathing in response to reduced oxygen levels in the blood.
Carotid bodies normally 'sniff' the levels of oxygen in the blood and, like a thermostat, respond when levels get too low. They signal the brain to increase the breathing rate and blood pressure.
Removing a carotid body caused falls in blood pressure that were greater than we see through medication. This suggests the strong potential for treating high blood pressure by targeting the organ. In the future the researchers believe this could be done with a drug, which would be more practical than surgery.
New treatments are urgently needed
Our Associate Medical Director, Professor Jeremy Pearson, said: "High blood pressure affects around 30 per cent of UK adults and can lead to fatal heart attacks and stroke. We urgently need to find new and better ways to treat high blood pressure and that will only be possible through research.
"By tackling the problem differently and seeking to understand the underlying causes of increased blood pressure, this BHF-funded research team has shown for the first time that removal of the carotid body can effectively reduce blood pressure in patients with resistant hypertension.
"This proof of principle clinical study is the exciting first stage in developing less invasive methods or new drugs targeting the carotid body, which can be used in future to treat patients whose blood pressure is not controlled with current medication."
Fund future breakthroughs
Thanks to your support we fund millions of pounds of research into high blood pressure which is bringing us closer to new treatments to save and improve lives. Help us keep funding research like this.