New research in Birmingham to study smallest vessels of the heart

26 October 2018        

Category: Research

Dr Neena Kalia from the University of Birmingham

Dr Neena Kalia, Senior Lecturer in Microcirculation Research and Director of Intravital Research at the University of Birmingham, is leading this new research funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

New research that we have funded at the University of Birmingham will study the damage caused to the smallest vessels of the heart following a heart attack.

Microvessels in the heart play a crucial role in regulating blood supply. They are so small that they cannot be seen when using standard scans for heart conditions, such as an angiogram or echocardiogram.

Researchers at the university have developed a state-of-the-art imaging technique, which was funded by a previous BHF grant. This particular microscopy technique allows them to look in detail at microvessels in the beating heart.

The BHF has now awarded £153,000 of PhD studentship funding to the University to study these tiny vessels. During a heart attack, microvessels become dysfunctional and contribute to organ damage.

Novel imaging technique

Microscopy images showing microvessels in the heart

Microscopically imaging the beating heart reveals how the density of small blood vessels is reduced after a heart attack. Parts of the image marked with a * identify multiple areas with no microvessels after injury.

The new funding will also allow researchers, using the university’s novel imaging technique, to assess the impact that a protein called IL-36 has on the heart’s microvessels following a heart attack.

Previous work by researchers at Birmingham has shown that this protein could play a leading role in damaging microvessels, particularly in older hearts. This is because a receptor that this protein uses, which generates its damaging effects, is found at higher levels in older hearts than in younger ones.

Using mice, the research will characterise and compare the damage that a heart attack has on the small blood vessels within young and old hearts. The study will also test human heart tissue samples from heart patients to determine whether IL-36 and its receptor are present.

Impact of ageing on the heart’s microvessels

The three-year research project is set to get underway at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences later this year and will be led by Dr Neena Kalia, Senior Lecturer in Microcirculation Research and Director of Intravital Research at the University of Birmingham.

Dr Kalia said: “Problems with circulation in the smallest blood vessels of the body is a typical characteristic of many diseases. Our specialist imaging technique allows us to assess the larger problems these tiny vessels can cause, specifically in the heart.

“Importantly, this studentship will be the first to explore the impact of ageing on the heart’s microvessels in health and post-injury. Understanding these processes and the mechanisms contributing to them is essential if we are to devise and optimise treatments that will be effective in people affected by a heart attack.”

Better understanding

Dr Ross King, Research Advisor at the BHF, added: “This novel study will be the first to image and explore – in live, beating hearts - the role IL-36 plays in microvessels following a heart attack.

"Although further research will be needed to see how this is applicable to humans, this study could provide us with a better understanding of the changes that occur in health and disease to the heart’s microvessels as a result of the ageing process. This will be necessary to develop new strategies to protect the heart and improve outcomes for patients.

“This funding has only been made possible by the fantastic generosity of the public. We rely on their support so that we can drive forward research programmes in our mission to beat heartbreak forever and ensure that we keep hearts beating and blood flowing.”

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