Scientists to create computer models to study deadly heart condition

9 August 2017        

Category: Research

Scientists at the University of Oxford are to develop computer models of the human heart to better understand a deadly inherited heart condition.

A computer image of electrical activity in the heart before it beats

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is the main cause of sudden cardiac death in children and young adults. About 1 in 500 of the UK population has the condition, although most people who have it have few, if any, symptoms.

HCM affects both the muscle structure and electrical function of the heart, but how those factors combine to increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and sudden death is not known.  

To better understand that relationship, Dr Alfonso Bueno-Orovio has been awarded £542,000 by us to take up a prestigious Intermediate Fellowship. He will collaborate with experts working in computer science, laboratories and clinics to construct computer models of the human heart in HCM. These can then be used to run simulations of how the disease causes dangerous heart rhythms. 

This research could reveal more about the mechanisms behind HCM, and highlight new ways to diagnose and treat people who are at most risk of sudden cardiac death.

Improving treatment

Alfonso Bueno OrovioDr Alfonso Bueno-Orovio, said: “Computer models are a great tool to investigate how HCM can increase a person’s risk of sudden death as it is very difficult to study the disease in such detail in people living with the condition. 

“The models will allow us to use simulations to study each of the different potential electrical and muscular abnormalities caused by the disease and better understand how they interact to cause dangerous heart rhythms.

“We believe that this research could give us valuable insights that will not only improve the diagnosis of this disease, but also help clinicians choose the best course of treatment for individual patients.”

Dr Shannon Amoils, our Senior Research Adviser, said: “Currently it can be difficult to predict which patients with HCM are at risk of dangerous heart rhythm disturbances, and therefore who would benefit from having lifesaving pacemaker treatment.  

“Dr Bueno-Orovio’s research offers the potential to create patient specific computer models of the heart in people with HCM, which could lead to a more personalised approach to deciding treatment options."

Pioneering research

The BHF has been at the forefront of research into HCM since the early 1980s. Scientists funded by the charity helped to discover the faulty genes which underlie the condition and have since discovered others.

More recently, the charity has helped to establish the Miles Frost Fund. The Fund aims to ensure that genetic testing for immediate family members of those affected by HCM is available. It funds two-year posts for specialist genetic nurses and counsellors to work within inherited heart condition clinics to improve referral and diagnosis for families affected. At the end of the funding, the hope is that the NHS will sustain the nursing posts created by the Miles Frost Fund and roll out the service nationally.