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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 of Birmingham 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 mice, 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 of Birmingham’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 of Birmingham.

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.”

For more information please contact:

  1. Emma McKinney, Communications Manager (Health Sciences), University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0) 121 414 6681, or contact the press office out of hours on +44 (0) 7789 921 165
  2. Lee Kettle from the BHF’s Media Team on 07741 908365
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • About the British Heart Foundation: Heart and circulatory diseases kill 1 in 4 people in the UK. They cause heartbreak on every street. But if research can invent machines to restart hearts, fix arteries in newborn babies, build tiny devices to correct heartbeats, and give someone a heart they weren’t born with - imagine what’s next. We fund research into all heart and circulatory diseases and their risk factors. Heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, vascular dementia, diabetes and many more. All connected, all under our microscope. Our research is the promise of future prevention, cures and treatments. You and the British Heart Foundation. Together, we will beat heartbreak forever.