What is a heart attack?
A heart attack happens when the heart suddenly stops receiving a supply of oxygen-rich blood - usually due to a clot blocking the flow in one of the arteries which supply blood to the muscles of the heart (the coronary arteries). This damages your heart muscle and can result in heart failure.
Heart attacks send almost 200,000 people in the UK to the hospital every year, that’s more than the entire population of Peterborough. Although survival rates have improved since we started funding research into new treatments, 180 people die from heart attacks in the UK each day. Which is why it's so important we continue funding research.
Find out more about the symptoms and causes of heart attack.
Improving the troponin test
The symptoms of a heart attack can include a sudden onset of severe and persistent pain or discomfort in the chest and upper body, feeling sick, sweaty, lightheaded or being short of breath. Not everyone having a heart attack will have all of these symptoms and not all of these symptoms are specific to people having a heart attacks. This can make diagnosing someone in hospital very difficult.
One of the tests used to diagnose a person with a heart attack looks for a protein in the blood called troponin. Troponin is released from the heart muscle into the bloodstream when it is damaged, and it can also be produced in smaller amounts by other problems, such as kidney failure.
We’ve funded research at the University of Edinburgh, to assess a new, more sensitive test for troponin. This test can detect much lower amounts of troponin in the blood, meaning that there is less of a chance of missing a heart attack. Because a more sensitive test could also result in more people with raised troponin levels unrelated to heart attack being treated inappropriately, the researchers are also checking whether their new test produces false positives. We’re also funding research to determine whether troponin testing can be used to diagnose underlying heart disease even in patients who turn out not to have had a heart attack.
Can a blood pressure cuff stop heart injuries after heart attack?
When a clot cuts off the supply of blood to the heart muscle, its cells rapidly start to die. Treatments like stents and bypass surgery aim to restore blood flow to the heart as quickly as possible. But sometimes, restoring the supply of oxygen rich blood to muscle cells can damage those cells, making an injury worse. This is called a reperfusion injury.
A team of researchers at University College London, led by Professor Derek Hausenloy, are using a blood pressure cuff to temporarily restrict blood flow to the arm of someone who has had a heart attack, to see if this can reduce the damage caused by blood flow being restored to the heart. This is called remote ischaemic conditioning and could potentially be a cheap and effective way to prevent reperfusion injuries from developing.
The difference we've already made
Our research has saved thousands of lives. Before the mid 1970s, nobody fully understood the cause of heart attacks. Treatment was bedrest and pain relief medication, and most patients found their health deteriorating quickly afterwards. In fact, during those times 70% of people in the UK who suffered a heart attack in the UK didn’t survive.
This began to change in the 1960s, with the creation of the first coronary care units. And in 1976, BHF Professor Michael Davies demonstrated that most heart attacks are caused by blood clots in the coronary arteries - paving the way for life-saving research into why these clots form, and towards developing ‘clot-busting’ medicines to combat them.
Since then, we’ve funded research studies that included tens of thousands of patients, showing that a combination of aspirin and streptokinase (a thrombolytic, or ‘clot-busting’ medicine) taken soon after a heart attack was more effective than any single treatment in saving lives.
This research, led by BHF Professor Rory Collins, showed that giving this combination cut deaths by nearly 40%. Since this discovery in 1988, this approach became common practice amongst doctors - giving thousands of people every year the best chance of surviving a heart attack.
Thanks to all the life saving research you’ve helped us to fund over the last fifty years, today, seven in ten heart attack victims are able to go home to their families, but there is still much more to do.
Find out more about our successes in heart attack research