Researchers at CUH are paving the way for new discoveries in heart disease

22 February 2016
We're surrounded by heart decorations, in floral bouquets and even heart shape chocolates all in the name of Valentine’s day. However, February is also National Heart month and one of the most important hearts we can think about is our own.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the biggest killers in the UK, with more than 155,000 deaths each year, killing someone in the UK every three minutes. There is an estimated 7 million people living with CVD in the UK, and with more people living longer, there is an increasing number of people being diagnosed with this condition.

CVD is a general term that describes a disease of the heart or blood vessels. Our heart is a muscle about the size of a fist and pumps blood around the body and beats approximately 70 times a minute. When your heart’s blood supply is blocked or interrupted by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries it can cause life threatening problems.Professor Nick Morrell

A report from the British Heart Foundation found in 2011-2013, over 220 people died from CVD in Cambridge, with 53% being women. Recent figures show that 8,020 of residents in South Cambridgeshire are currently living with CVD.

Professor Nick Morrell, cardiopulmonary physician and theme lead for cardiovascular research at the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH) and the University of Cambridge said: “The common cause of CVD is furring up of the arteries and occurs as people get older but can be accelerated with poor diet, obesity and smoking. The arteries narrow because of atherosclerosis - a build-up of fat which leads to inflammation in the artery, if this then ruptures there can be a catastrophic problem such as a heart attack or a stroke.”

Nick is leading a group of researchers who are investigating why heart disease occurs, developing new treatments and how to prevent it. “One of the things I’m looking at is pulmonary arterial hypertension with Papworth hospital – where the pulmonary arteries narrow or tighten leading to a strain on the heart. The condition occurs in women between the ages of 20-40, and sadly causes death in three to five years’ time, but we have found what we hope will be a new treatment for this condition - we hope to go into clinical trials soon.”

CVD includes a range of different heart conditions such as coronary heart disease, heart attacks, heart failure and stroke. “We have a lot of work on-going by several research groups, the majority of our research is with our patients who already have been diagnosed with the condition. We have a large study looking at blood donors to see if there are any clues to identify people having CVD at an earlier stage. We’re doing a lot of genetic studies in common and rare disease. Our researchers are looking at developing new imaging techniques to see if we can spot high risk arteries that are likely to rupture and cause heart attacks, so we can try and intervene before that happens.

“We’re working closely with the University of Cambridge to look at the difference of stresses in the heart to find the most vulnerable blood vessel.  We’re also looking to see if the immune system plays its part and whether drugs that are readily available for other conditions can be used to prevent or treat CVD.”

The research Nick and the other cardiovascular researchers are doing is fundamental to help treat CVD, “coronary artery disease is still one of the biggest causes of death, even though we have aspirin and blood pressure treatments, people are still dying from this disease. We have to find new and better ways to predict, prevent and treating it.”

How can you prevent CVD?

Most people who are diagnosed are over 50 years of age. You are in a higher risk group to develop CVD if you have high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, family history of CVD or a smoker. However, there are some really easy steps to take not just to improve your heart but also your health, Nick explained: “Having a healthy diet and exercising are some of the things you can do to prevent heart disease. Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your heart, the sooner you give up you reduce the risks of CVD, but it also reduces the chance of other health concerns such as stroke and a variety of cancers.”

There currently is no sign that tells you that you have CVD without special tests, but there are warning signals that could help you identify if there is a problem. “Shortness of breath or chest pains when exercising should be a key indicator to getting checked out,” Nick says. “GPs usually offer a health test to people over 50 which include blood pressure and cholesterol checks, if anyone is worried they should make an appointment with their GP before taking things like aspirin daily.”

The future for cardiovascular research at the Biomedical Research Centre at Cambridge University Hospitals is entering an exciting stage. There will soon be another addition to the campus with the arrival of Papworth Hospital in 2018. The move will mean patients will have an improved access to this specialist heart transplant hospital as well as access to the renowned Addenbrooke’s hospital. This new enterprise will benefit cardiovascular research in a massive way, Nick said: “Papworth is the largest Cardiothoracic tertiary referral centre in the UK. The move to our campus can help us treat more people who have heart disease and will also increase new research programmes to help find better treatments to prevent the disease.”

There is a big fundraising drive for a heart and lung research institute to make the future of cardiovascular research possible at CUH, “We want to bring the people who work in CVD and respiratory disease together to assess, prevent and cure this disease,” Nick said. “Our goal is to be the world’s leading institute with practice changing research, it’s a very exciting time.” They hope to raise funds to eventually build this new centre and go on to create ground breaking research in CVD. “Without heart research we are going to continue to lose the people close to us prematurely on what is the commonest cause of death in this country.”             

The research team at Cambridge are supporting healthy heart month, and asked us all to be a bit kinder on ourselves and on the muscle that keeps us alive. Nick added: “It’s never too late to change your lifestyle behaviour, the sooner you change the better. It will help give you a longer, better quality of life and also reduce the risks of health problems in the future.”

Further information on Nick's work on pulmonary arterial hypertension