A plastic model of a heart used for teaching

A Birmingham researcher will join forces with teams in Germany and the Netherlands to drive breakthroughs in heart and circulatory diseases research, thanks to a pioneering partnership between the British Heart Foundation (BHF), Dutch Heart Foundation (DHF) and German Centre for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK).

The team at the University of Birmingham, led by Dr Katja Gehmlich, will receive £499,927 from the British Heart Foundation. This will support their research to understand the underlying causes of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that can lead to heart failure or sudden cardiac arrest, with the aim of using their discoveries to test new possible treatments for the conditions.

In total, the three funders have awarded over €5.2 million (approximately £4.7 million) over the next four years to four international teams.

This is the fifth round of awards resulting from this partnership, and the second year specifically targeted at supporting mid-career researchers in the three countries. The funding will enable researchers to pool and exchange their knowledge, expertise, and resources to tackle some of the most pressing questions in cardiovascular science and medicine. The awards will also help to accelerate the investigators’ trajectories towards becoming future leaders in their fields of research.

Z-disc focus for inherited heart disease

The research at the University of Birmingham, which also involve co-applicants and collaborators in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, is:

Understanding the mechano-signalling role of the Z-disc in the pathogenesis of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HeartDisc)

Principal investigators: Dr Katja Gehmlich, University of Birmingham; Dr Claudia Crocini, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin; Dr Diederik Kuster, Amsterdam University Medical Center.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is an inherited disease that causes the muscle wall of the heart to become thickened and stiff, making it harder for the heart to pump blood. This can lead to heart failure, as well as potentially deadly heart rhythm problems that can lead to a sudden cardiac arrest.

The researchers have found changes in a structure called the ‘Z-disc’, which forms part of the heart muscle fibre, in HCM patients. They believe that Z-discs have a crucial role in coordinating contraction of the heart muscle, acting as a central hub to sense and respond when the heart muscle contracts and pass that signal on.

The team will use several approaches, including slices of heart muscle from HCM patients, heart muscle grown from stem cells, and mouse models of HCM to explore how Z-discs sense and respond to abnormal heart muscle contraction in HCM, and how this leads to other changes seen in diseased heart muscle cells. They will use what they learn to investigate drugs that could reverse changes to the Z-discs in HCM and act as a possible treatment for the condition.

Professor Metin Avkiran, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said:

“We’re delighted to be funding this ambitious project in collaboration with our European partners, building on the success of the awards we have funded together over the past five years. By joining forces to support the best and the brightest across our countries to work together on pressing problems, we can ensure the money donated by our generous supporters goes further to power more lifesaving research.

“Scientific progress thrives on international collaboration. Through this funding we can help to cement collaborations between future research leaders that will continue to reap rewards long after these projects have finished.”