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The three-year research project will be led by Dr Neena Kalia, Senior Lecturer in Microcirculation Research and Director of Intravital Research.

New research by the University of Birmingham and funded by the British Heart Foundation will study the damage caused to the smallest vessels of the heart following a heart attack.

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. 

Microvessels are so small that they cannot be seen when using standard scans for heart conditions, such as an angiogram or echocardiogram.

The BHF has now awarded £153,000 of PhD studentship funding to the University to study these tiny vessels, which play a crucial role in regulating blood supply to the heart.

During a heart attack, microvessels become dysfunctional and contribute to organ damage. 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 the University 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 in vivo models, 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.

The three-year research project is set to get underway at the University’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.

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.”

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.”