New Sheffield research could help to develop preventative treatments for heart disease

25 March 2019        

Category: Research

Researchers at the University of Sheffield are to study if ‘turning off’ a protein could help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

We've provided funding to a team of scientists, led by Professor Paul Evans from the university's Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease to look at the role a protein called c-Rel plays in the development of atherosclerosis.

Decoding a complex disease

Atherosclerosis is a disease where fatty materials build up over time inside the walls of the arteries, forming a hard substance called a plaque. When the build-up becomes too much, the plaque can become damaged or ruptured, and this is what leads to heart attacks and strokes.

As blood flows through our circulatory system, it creates friction on the wall of the blood vessels. In areas where blood vessels branch or bend, the blood doesn't just flow in one direction, and more friction is created. This can lead to damage to the blood vessel walls and makes plaques more likely to form.

Continuing with previous research

Previous research found that a protein, known as c-Rel, is ‘switched on’ by damage to the blood vessel walls, and accelerates the build-up of fatty plaques even further.

An image from a microscope highlighting a protein called c-Rel, in part of the aorta. An image of the protein c-Rel under a microscope (highlighted in red)

In this study, Professor Evans will investigate how removing c-Rel affects the progression of the disease in mice. If mice that have had c-Rel 'switched off' or removed are shown to have lower levels of build-up of these dangerous plaques, it could pave the way for developing drugs to block this protein and reduce a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

Heart attacks still have a big impact on patients

Jim Waller, a retired systems engineer from Sheffield, had a heart attack when he was just 49.

“I had just got back from walking my dogs near to my house. I had started to experience chest pain whilst I was out, and it gradually got worse and worse. It was probably the worst pain I’ve ever felt. When I called the emergency services, they went through all the symptoms with me – the pain, the tingling in my left arm, the nausea. I said I had all of them, so they advised me to open the front door and then to sit down and wait for the ambulance which would be there very soon.

“Once they had confirmed I was having a heart attack I was rushed to hospital, and I decided then and there that I definitely didn’t ever want to go through this again! I’ve done a lot to change my lifestyle since it happened, including giving up smoking, doing a lot more exercise and taking up meditation to reduce my stress levels. I have now been diagnosed with heart failure, which was caused by the damage to my heart during the heart attack.

“Research that contributes to preventing heart attacks is very important. Although I was lucky enough to survive mine, the damage it has done to my heart is permanent, so finding treatments which could help others avoid this in future is crucial.”

A portrait of Jim Waller, BHF case study, looking straight at the camera and wearing a red BHF T-shirt.Jim Waller from Sheffield survived a heart attack when he was 49, but now has heart failure caused by the damage to his heart.

Professor Evans said: “Heart attacks and strokes are two of the leading causes of death and disability in the UK. That’s why it is vital that we look at new ways of preventing the development of atherosclerosis, the disease which lies behind these life-threatening conditions.

“With this BHF-funded project, we are aiming to prove a link between the protein c-Rel, and the formation of fatty plaques in the arteries. If we’re able to show that, it would help us to develop medications to treat people considered at risk of heart attack and stroke.”

Our Research Advisor Lucie Duluc said: “In the UK there are over 100,000 hospital admissions due to heart attacks each year, so we urgently need to find new therapies to prevent them.

“There is still so much we don’t know about the development of atherosclerosis, so research like this is crucial to advance our knowledge and make lifesaving treatments a reality.

“Research like this has only been made possible by the generous funding of the public and their support to drive forward our mission to beat heartbreak forever.”

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