Our successes with heart failure research

Heart failure happens when the heart isn’t pumping blood around the body as efficiently as it used to. The most common reason for this is when the heart muscle has been damaged, for example, after a heart attack.

Heart failure affects more than half a million people in the UK, and has a survival rate worse than many cancers. We've been working to change that.

An ACE breakthrough

In the 1960’s, scientists hadn’t yet discovered any medication that helped improve the life expectancy of patients who’d been diagnosed with heart failure. But since our foundation in 1961, we’ve funded research that’s made many breakthroughs in heart failure medication.

In 1993, BHF Professor Stephen Ball at the University of Leeds helped show that medicines called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors can relax and widen blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure and improves blood flow to the heart. This reduces the amount of pressure on the heart, and improves the lives of people living with heart failure. ACE inhibitors are now a first-line treatment for heart failure patients.

Making it easier to diagnose heart failure

Before the late 1990s, when a GP suspected a patient was suffering from heart failure, it was hard to confirm the diagnosis. But in 1997, a team of doctors, which included BHF funded Professor Allan Struthers and BHF Professor Phillip Poole-Wilson, discovered that a simple blood test could transform heart failure diagnosis. The creation of this blood test was published in the prestigious journal The Lancet.The test measured levels of B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP), in the blood. More BNP is present in people with heart failure, so a low reading rules out heart failure whereas a high reading tells us that heart failure is a possibility. Very high readings show that a patient needs urgent treatment. The test speeds up diagnosis, so patients get the care and medication they need as quickly possible.

In 2010, national guidelines for doctors included the BNP test as part of the gold standard for heart failure diagnosis. In 2016 a group of MPs urged all GP surgeries in the country to adopt the BNP test, which costs less than £28 per patient.

Heart transplants

Currently, a heart transplant is the only cure for end-stage heart failure. Our funding has been part of the transplant story since the 1960s - we funded research into the procedure even before the world’s first heart transplant in 1967. Later, we provided support to Donald Ross, who performed the UK’s first ever heart transplant at the National Heart Hospital in London, in 1968.

After the initial excitement of the surgery died down, it was clear that rejection of the donor heart was a major challenge, so we funded immunology research to combat this problem. In 1986, we were proud to begin funding the work of BHF Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub at Imperial College London - the world renowned heart surgeon and transplant pioneer who performed the world’s first “domino procedure” in which two patients receive transplants one after another. In the first procedure a donor’s heart and lungs were transplanted into the first patient, and that patient’s heart is in turn transplanted into a second patient. In these procedures the first patient has a lung disease which places stress on their heart, conditioning it in such a way to make it a better choice for transplant into the second patient than the original donors heart.

The ultimate cure

There are still no medicines that can prevent or cure heart failure. We’re investing in regenerative medicine research, so that one day we can help damaged hearts can heal themselves and prevent heart failure.

Read about our research into heart failure.