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Research for the British Heart Foundation


Hey I’m Claire, a second year PhD student here at the University of Manchester looking at how the cardiovascular system, the heart and blood vessels, works. With cardiovascular diseases being the leading cause of death worldwide, contributing to over 30%, research into the heart and blood vessels is very important.

The heart is an amazing organ. Working as a pump, the heart beats one hundred times a day to move twenty three thousand litres of blood around the body. This job is hugely important as the movement of blood around the body not only delivers oxygen and nutrients but also removes waste.

So, for the heart to do a pretty good job it must continuously pump in a regular pattern.  When the heart begins to beat strangely - too fast, too slow or in an odd rhythm- things begin to go wrong. These abnormal heart rhythms are called arrhythmias and are the focus of my work.

In depth

How common are arrhythmias? Very! The chances of you knowing someone who has an odd heartbeat is highly likely. In the UK alone, one million people experience a heart rhythm problem every year, making it one of the top 10 reasons people go to see a doctor. Arrhythmias also play a part of half of heart failure deaths, so understanding how they develop is crucial to tackle the major heart disease problem.

What causes abnormal heart rhythms? Arrhythmias are really complex and can be affected by many things including diseases, your lifestyle choices but also your genetic makeup. Your genes are the codes which decide your unique characteristics, acting as a sort of blueprint or set of instructions. Now your genes not only decide how you look, but they also influence your chances of developing certain diseases, including arrhythmias.

So my research aims to identify certain genes or codes which make your heartbeat irregular, hoping to uncover why some people are more likely to get odd heart rhythms.

How do I look into a role of a gene in the heart’s natural rhythm? I mess around with the genetic blueprint of heart cells in both human and animal cells.

Animal models can be controversial to use, but are hugely important in science research. They allow me to look at the bodily effect of gene by removing a gene from the heart of a mouse- something which I defiantly couldn’t do in a human!! Comparing normal mice with those who have a certain gene missing from there heart, I see how that specific genetic instruction affects how the heart pumps blood. Therefore, I can see if having or not having a single gene can make you more or less likely to get an abnormal heart rhythm!

Can this help fight cardiovascular disease?  By knowing how our genetic makeup affects our chances of getting heart diseases, can help us not only identify the people who are most at risk but may also help in developing  new drugs and treatment for abnormal heart rhythms and even heart failure!

Why I do it? While I may not have always loved science at school, I have always been fascinated by the world around us, especially how our amazingly intricate bodies work and what happens when things go wrong in diseases. As mentioned, cardiovascular disease is a major health problem. Being able to be part of the fight against it is truly rewarding and astounding.

Like a lot of scientists, the main thing that attracted me the world of science research is the excitement of the unknown, knowing that no one has ever done what I am doing is an amazing feeling!

Going further

I hope you are now fascinated by the world of science research and the cardiovascular system! Here are some ways to further delve into the area I am studying -

My work is kindly funded by the British Heart Foundation, and there website is great for learning more about the different conditions and what research they do.

·  Here you can find out lots of basic facts about the heart:


·  This section explains more about abnormal heart rhythms:


·  And here is a link to information about some of the other research they support:

I am part of the Institute of Cardiovascular Science at Manchester. Here is the link to their page when you can find out more about the research going on and how you can get involved through further study:


Mending a broken heart

by YPU Admin on December 11, 2014, Comments. Tags: britishheartfoundation, cardiovascular, cells, heart, medicine, Research, and treatment


Hi! My name is Abi Robertson and I am a second year PhD student in the cardiovascular group at the University of Manchester. After finishing my A Levels I started an Anatomical Science degree at the University of Manchester. This was where my love for the heart began! Following my undergraduate degree I completed an MRes in Cardiovascular Health and Disease here and this enabled me to apply for a PhD funded by the British Heart Foundation. You can find more information on my PhD and the other cardiovascular courses available here .

My PhD project is called ‘Targeting the Hippo signalling pathway to enhance the protective effects of iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes’ (A bit of a mouthful!). In short this means I am looking at how cells signal within themselves to divide and to see if we can target this to help stem cells become heart cells and survive.

But why?

In Depth..

During a heart attack the blood supply to the heart is stopped. Lack of blood and oxygen damages the heart cells. This can result in a severe loss of cells in sections of your heart. Unlike other tissues in your body, such as your skin, cells in the heart cannot heal themselves. This leaves an area in the heart that cannot beat like the surrounding tissue. This is called an infarct area.  If the infarct area is quite large it can affect how your heart functions, leads to health problems and even heart failure.

For the heart to be able to function normally again the heart cells need to be replaced. Attempts are being made to heal the heart by creating heart cells in the lab from stem cells. Using new technology we can re-programme skin cells into stem cells. The skin is an excellent source of cells as they are easily available. These stem cells are called Induced Pluripotent Stem cells. These cells can then be turned into any cell type in the body including the beating cells in the heart. The hope for this therapy is that these cells can be used to make patches and be placed on the heart like a plaster.

Before this is possible we need to make sure the heart cells we are using are able to survive in the challenging environment of the infarct area. Firstly, the infarct area has low oxygen and nutrients, so the cells need to be able to cope with this. Secondly, it is estimated over a billion cells are lost after a heart attack so a lot of heart cells are needed!

This is why my PhD project is looking at the signalling within cells and seeing if we can create cells which survive but also divide in tough environments. We hope to create super heart cells!

Going further..

I really enjoy working in this area of research. It’s a relatively new area so there are always lots of exciting discoveries! Hopefully one day using stem cells as a therapy will become the treatment of choice for people who have suffered a heart attack!

Here are a few links if you would like any more information on the area:

The Stem Cell Network has created some excellent videos on ‘What are stem cells?’

Explore an interactive comic about stem cells:

An excellent TED talk by Susan Soloman on the use of induced pluripotent stem cells:

The National Institute of Health has an excellent website that covers pretty much everything you could want to know about stem cells:

A stem cell story:

YouTube user John Schell has some great videos of beating heart cells that have been derived from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells:

This BBC article discusses a clinical trial that is underway to see if stem cells can heal broken hearts: