Big-hearted Scots fund world-class research into killer conditions

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I’m always immensely proud to enlighten people to the fact that the British Heart Foundation is the biggest independent funder of cardiovascular research in Scotland.

In fact, I describe Scotland as a jewel in the crown of BHF research: we’re currently funding £61 million worth across the country.

Institutions in Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and St Andrews are the settings for world-class laboratory and clinical research by scientists at all stages of their careers, from PhD students to professors and chairs of cardiology. And it’s all paid for by the generosity of the public, through fundraising, donations and legacies.

Over the next five years the BHF hopes to fund half a billion pounds of research to improve the prevention, diagnoses and treatments of all heart and circulatory diseases.

This strategy will be led by our new Medical Director, Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, and it’s a role he says he is “very privileged and very honoured” to be appointed to.

Nilesh recently gave his first media interview in Scotland since his appointment. He said groundbreaking research is happening here and the BHF is a big player in cardiovascular research, not just in the UK but internationally.

And he’s played a huge personal part in that, having been funded by the BHF as Professor of Cardiology at the University of Leicester and being a leader in the discovery of genes associated with coronary heart 
disease.

We announced in late September that Nilesh has joined researchers around the world to develop a groundbreaking system to “score” our genetic risk of coronary heart disease.

People at risk could be identified much earlier and be helped to prevent coronary heart disease through, for example, lifestyle changes. Unfortunately the current clinical risk scores – such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels – are not good at evaluating risk until middle-age. However, risk scoring that is based on your DNA could be applied at any age.

Nilesh says: “We’ve done very large studies with collaborators around the world to identify genes that affect your risk of getting coronary heart disease. We’ve identified more than 60 such genes already.”

This is fantastic news for Scotland, which has a high burden of coronary heart disease. If doctors can better predict whether a person will develop the disease, action can be taken much sooner to try to help prevent heart disease and heart attacks.

I share Nilesh’s excitement at what our funded research in Scotland has achieved and could bring in future, from drug treatment for heart failure to regenerative medicine where stem cells could be used to mend the heart that’s damaged by a heart attack.

Last month I visited the University of Dundee and met several scientists who are funded by the BHF. Their passion for cardiovascular science, and their inquisitiveness, is awe-inspiring and the impact of their work could benefit so many lives.

Take people with heart failure, for example. An international study led by Professor Chim Lang and Dr 
Graham Rena at the Division of Molecular and Clinical Medicine at Dundee has found that the world’s most commonly used Type 2 
diabetes drug, Metformin, may be “repurposed” to treat non-diabetic conditions.

There is now strong evidence that the drug exhibits an anti-inflammatory action which may prove significant in people with cardiovascular disease who do not have diabetes.

Finding new purposes for existing medicines can benefit patients much more quickly and these findings offer further evidence that old drugs can perform new tricks.

Dundee is also the location for a new BHF-funded study into whether e-cigarettes are better for us than traditional tobacco cigarettes. Dr Jacob George and his team will compare the effects of e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes on blood vessel function, which is a key health indicator.

If you want to find out more about the research we fund, please visit our website and keep an eye on our social media accounts for news of the latest funding and impact.

James Cant, Director, British Heart Foundation Scotland, see www.bhf.org.uk The full interview with Professor Sir Nilesh Samani appears in the September issue of Holyrood 
magazine.