Pioneering vascular research receives major boost from the British Heart Foundation

The British Heart Foundation has awarded nearly £900,000 to a University of Leicester professor to continue his pioneering heart valve research. 

Professor Matthew Bown has also been appointed the Foundation’s first ever Chair of Vascular Surgery. The role, which officially starts on Saturday 1 April, comes with a five-year funding package to continue his vital work into Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms (AAA), which are responsible for around 3,000 deaths each year in the UK.

His research will also look at screening and management of Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD), among other vascular diseases. 

Professor Bown, who specialises in vascular surgery, said: “I’m immensely proud to take up this role with the British Heart Foundation. Our research will now continue on a deeper level with the aim of identifying the causes of AAA and PAD, how best to screen for it and use this screening to improve cardiovascular health.” 

Abdominal aortic aneurysms, which are mainly found in males, are balloon-like swellings in the abdominal portion of the aorta – the body’s biggest blood vessel running from the heart down through the chest and stomach.

AAAs can easily be detected with an ultrasound scan and are often found early by screening programmes offered to all men over 65 years.

Treatment involves high risk surgery, offered to patients if their AAA grows too large and is in danger of rupturing. Ruptures cause massive internal bleeding and are fatal in up to 90 per cent of cases. 

Professor Bown said: “Screening is the best way to detect this life-threatening condition but sadly around 20 per cent don’t take up this opportunity and it remains undiagnosed. 

“We would always encourage those eligible for screening programmes to take up the offer so that monitoring of this condition, if detected, can take place alongside potentially life-saving treatment.” 

Over 12,000 men in the UK have an AAA that is not large enough for the operation to treat them to be worth the risk. During this medical limbo, which usually lasts years, patients attend regular AAA check-ups, but live with the possibility of their AAA bursting and also face a higher risk of developing heart or other circulatory diseases.

Professor Bown’s research focuses on the genetics behind AAAs by looking at the genes known to contribute to their development and growth.  

He hopes to pinpoint potential targets for drugs designed to slow or stop AAA  growth and reduce the chance of rupture. 

In addition, the team is using advanced computer modelling and the latest NHS data to assess a targeted AAA screening system, where people at the highest risk of an AAA can be identified and invited for screening. This could pave the way for real-life testing, and possibly a switch to a more cost-effective, tailored programme.

Testing is also taking place to see if it is possible to screen for peripheral arterial disease - a narrowing of the blood vessels supplying the limbs, usually the legs, and high blood pressure at the same time as AAA. 

“Patients with PAD are at greater risk of heart attacks and strokes, and this often goes undiagnosed,” said Professor Bown.

“We hope that our work can really make a difference to patient outcomes in this area and ultimately reduce the number of deaths each year related to these vascular conditions.” 

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Abdominal aortic aneurysms and peripheral arterial disease are both important vascular diseases. They can cause severe physical problems and mental stresses for patients. Around one in five people over the age of 65 in the UK are affected by either AAA or PAD.

“The award of a British Heart Foundation Chair of Vascular Surgery to Professor Bown is recognition of his world-leading work on these diseases and the promise that his future research holds for people living with AAA and PAD. His research will address crucial gaps in our knowledge to find effective ways of preventing the progression of AAA and efficient ways of diagnosing PAD. This will allow doctors to act earlier when treating vascular diseases in the future.”