What is heart failure?
Heart failure means the heart isn't pumping blood around the body as efficiently as it should. As the damaged heart needs to work harder, pressure on the heart increases and it becomes unable to provide your body with all the oxygen and nutrients it needs.
The most common reason for heart failure is the heart muscle being damaged – for example, by a heart attack.
Find out more about the symptoms and causes of heart failure.
Regenerating the heart
As little as twenty years ago, the idea that a heart could repair itself - through so called regenerative medicine - seemed like science fiction. But BHF-funded researchers are making progress.
Professor Richard Farndale and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge are developing a ‘patch’ from stem cells, which are special types of cells which can grow into more new cells and repair the heart tissue. This patch could be used to replace damaged muscle tissue after a heart attack. It’s made from a ‘scaffold’ of the protein collagen, and is designed like a sponge with pores that absorb cells into the scaffold.
Another study looking into regenerative medicine is being undertaken by Sanjay Sinha and his team at the University of Cambridge are working to transform embryonic stem cells into the smooth muscle cells which form the walls of blood vessels. If successful, these cells could help deliver blood flow to muscle tissue patches which would be attached to the damaged heart.
How do fish repair their hearts?
Dr Mathilda Mommersteeg and her colleagues at the University of Oxford are studying Mexican cave fish, an extraordinary species living in rivers and caves in Mexico. The river fish can quickly repair their hearts if damage is sustained, but the fish living in dark caves have lost their sight and pigmentation, and are unable to repair heart damage. Dr Mommersteeg and her team are currently looking at the DNA of the two types of fish, to try and work out what molecular mechanisms required for heart repair that the river fish have kept and the cavefish have lost.
This research may help explain why some fish can repair their hearts after damage, whereas humans can’t, and may reveal new ways to promote heart repair in people.
When the heart of a river fish is damaged, the heart muscle cells near the damaged area transform into stem cells, preventing heart failure from occuring. Previous research has shown that a protein called Mef2 is needed to turn stem cells from a different species of fish called zebrafish, into heart muscle cells.
Dr Yaniv Hinits and his BHF funded team at King’s College London are exploring the idea that zebrafish muscle cells near wounds are able to turn Mef2 off so they can become stem cells, before growing and turning Mef2 back on to repair the heart. The research will help determine if the protein could influence heart muscle repair in humans, and test if other proteins thought to influence recovery after heart attack are working through Mef2.
Using artificial intelligence to understand heart failure
It’s not always straightforward for doctors to find out when people with heart failure will get worse - which makes it difficult to provide the right treatment. Researchers lead by Declan O’Regan at Imperial College London are using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse thousands of heart scans generated by cardiac magnetic resonance imaging, which measure the shape and movement of the heart in order to build a detailed three dimensional models. These models are used to ‘train’ the computer to recognise the earliest signs of heart failure. They will then apply these methods to patient groups, alongside currently available methods, to determine if the AI is better at predicting which patients will get worse more quickly.
Read more about how artificial intelligence is helping improve heart failure diagnosis.
We need iron for the muscles in our bodies to function properly. But people living with heart failure also often have low iron levels. This can make symptoms like shortness of breath and fatigue worse, which has a significant effect on quality of life.
A team of our researchers, led by Dr Paul Kalra at Glasgow University, are studying whether giving intravenous iron replacement to people suffering from chronic heart failure will help improve their life expectancy.
Learn more about the IRON-MAN study.
The difference we've already made
Thanks to our life saving research, today 70% of people survive a heart attack. However, this means increasing numbers are now living with heart failure. Over the years, we’ve funded research to help heart failure patients live longer and have a better quality of life.
Life saving medicines
In the 1960’s, there were no known medicines to improve life expectancy if you were diagnosed with heart failure. But since the British Heart Foundation was founded in 1961, we’ve made breakthroughs in heart failure medicine. In 1993, BHF Professor Stephen Ball helped prove that medicines called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors can improve the quality of life and life expectancy for people who suffer from heart failure after a heart attack.
In the past, if someone was suspected of having heart failure, getting a definitive diagnosis was difficult. But another research breakthrough funded by the British Heart Foundation means we can now diagnose heart failure more easily with the help of a simple blood test which looks for a molecule called B-type natriuretic peptide, or ‘BNP’.
Read more about our past successes in heart failure research