Leeds researcher secures new funding to explore treatments for damaged hearts

3 October 2018        

Category: Research

Scientists we fund at the University of Leeds are to explore how to repair the damage caused by a heart attack. Dr Andrew Smith and his colleagues have been awarded £97,000 to investigate how to grow new blood vessels by ‘turning on’ stem cells in the heart.

When someone has a heart attack, the damage caused to the heart muscle is permanent. This can lead to heart failure, a condition where the heart is weakened and unable to pump blood around the body as effectively as it should, leading to further loss of heart muscle.

Heart tissue, fixed and stained with antibodies: heart muscle cells in red, cell nuclei in blue and a CSC in green (cell surface marker c-kit stained in green).

Previous stem cell research has focused on attempting to regrow the damaged heart muscle. However, this project will aim to prevent the loss of heart muscle during heart failure by improving the blood supply to the heart.

Dr Andrew Smith said: “A heart attack happens when one of the coronary arteries becomes blocked. The heart muscle is robbed of its vital blood supply and, if left untreated, will begin to die. When heart failure results from this, this causes further heart muscle to be lost from poor blood flow.

“In this project we’re trying to learn if this loss of heart muscle can be prevented by triggering the growth of new blood vessels. This would increase blood flow, keep more tissue healthy, and enable the heart to work better.

“Whilst this would not reverse heart failure, it could improve the quality of life of people who’ve had a heart attack.”  

Over 450,000 people in England have been diagnosed with heart failure. People with heart failure may feel tired and get breathless easily, and are much more likely to suffer a life-threatening cardiac arrest. Currently, there is no cure for heart failure, and treatments focus on reducing the workload of the heart to relieve the strain on the heart muscle.

Stem cells are cells that can develop into many different tissue types, including heart muscle or blood vessels. They are one of the main tools being explored in regenerative medicine, which aims to repair or replace damaged or diseased human tissues.

In this study, Dr Andrew Smith and his team will look at ways to make stem cells already present in the heart, called endogenous cardiac stem cells (eCSCs), help to develop new, working blood vessels so they can improve blood supply to the heart after damage caused by, for example, a heart attack. This project will increase our understanding of how these cardiac stem cells work and how to manipulate them to replace lost or damaged blood vessels in the heart.

Dave Young, a patient at Leeds General Infirmary (LGI), had a heart attack at 29. Since then he has suffered with a range of issues, which have not only caused physical problems, but have affected his mental health as well:

“When I had my heart attack in 1987, only 16% of people who suffered heart attacks survived – so I was very lucky. It wasn’t until quite a few years later that I discovered the lasting damage it had done to my heart.

“In 2012, following a game of badminton, I came home feeling very unwell. My pulse was racing and my wife called an ambulance. My heart was beating at 220bpm and they needed to use a defibrillator to get it back to normal. I was diagnosed with sustained ventricular tachycardia – a potentially dangerous heart rhythm disorder – and I had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) fitted, to make sure my heart rhythm was controlled.

“Since having the ICD fitted, I haven’t been able to work in my old job as an overhead lineman working on live electric lines for the Northern Powergrid, my working life changed dramatically. I have been extremely anxious and depressed as well, partly because I’m worried that I can’t support my family like I used to. I am seen by a great team at LGI and I am now on medication that seems to have kept my heart rhythm much better controlled, but it has been a really difficult few years and I wouldn’t wish my condition on anyone.

“The BHF is working with some amazing researchers at Leeds and I hope that others like myself will have a better chance of a normal life with the new discoveries that they are making.”

David and Sally Young with their two sons, Jack and Sam.

Dr Lucie Duluc, Research Advisor at the BHF says: “Heart failure is a highly debilitating condition and is currently incurable.

“Funding this new research in Leeds could be a step towards developing new treatments to improve the lives of people with heart failure.

“Research like this has only been made possible by the fantastic generosity of the public and is central in our mission to beat heartbreak forever.”