A project led by Professor Hugh Watkins at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine is one of the four projects on the shortlist of four research projects competing for a single £30 million award from the British Heart Foundation. The charity says it is one of many radical new approaches needed to address a frightening mismatch in research funding compared with the burden of heart and circulatory diseases.
With the World Health Organization forecasting an increase in cardiovascular deaths worldwide, the charity’s Big Beat Challenge is a global initiative to galvanise researchers and inspire transformational solutions to tackle the world’s biggest killer.
Professor Watkins' project aims to develop a cure for genetic heart muscle diseases which affect about 160,000 people in the UK, and about one million in the US. These cardiomyopathies affect the heart muscle, and are the leading cause of sudden cardiac death and heart failure in young people. While treatments to manage the symptoms of the disease exist, there is no cure for the root cause.
But Professor Watkins’ team has uncovered the genes that cause these diseases, and how these mutations work to change the functioning of the heart.
The researchers are now developing a treatment that targets and silences the faulty genes responsible for these cardiomyopathies. By combining a deep understanding of underlying genetic mechanisms with new technologies, the team aims to stop the progressive damage caused by genetic heart muscle diseases, and even stop it before it starts.
This is our chance to save the current generation of young people with genetic cardiomyopathies.
- Professor Hugh Watkins
Professor Watkins, who is the BHF chairholder at the University of Oxford, said: “Importantly, if we can learn how to do this, we can tackle other common heart problems, using the same tool.”
The shortlist of research proposals also features a soft biocompatible robotic heart to provide a viable cure for the escalating epidemic of heart failure, a ‘google map’ of atherosclerosis to find and develop immunotherapies against heart attack and stroke, and a project harnessing new technologies – including AI and wearable tech – to create a cardiovascular digital twin.
Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Heart and circulatory diseases remain the number one cause of death worldwide. We’re taking small steps forward every year but what’s needed is a giant leap, which won’t be achieved by a business-as-usual approach. The Big Beat Challenge embodies our ambition to turbo-charge progress and could lead to its own ‘man on the moon’ moment. I have absolutely no doubt the winning idea will define the decade in their area.”
The BHF’s Big Beat Challenge, launched in August 2018, is a global competition offering a single research award of up to £30million. The initiative was designed to push the international research community to identify a real-world challenge, significant unmet need or opportunity for game-changing innovation in cardiovascular science or medicine.
The BHF challenged researchers to form international, multi-disciplinary teams and submit outline research proposals that would be transformative, with a clear route to patient benefit, and that would only be possible with funding on this scale. The ideas could completely transform the lives of a few or provide a smaller but important change for many.
The BHF received 75 applications, featuring team members from 40 countries. Since the call for applications closed in June 2019, these proposals have been rigorously reviewed to get down to the four most compelling ideas.
Three separate panels independently scored the applications. A patient and public panel gave their perspective, a special panel of independent researchers and medical professionals scrutinised the scientific rigour of the proposals, and the final decision was made by the International Advisory Panel (IAP) comprised of leading international figures from the world of science, medicine and beyond.
The shortlisted teams will now start work on full applications, with a winner expected to be announced at the end of 2020.
The four shortlisted teams have been given a small amount of seed funding and will spend the next six months putting together their full applications. These will be reviewed by subject experts and the three panels, and the teams will be interviewed by the IAP. Together, they will decide which proposal has the most promising chance of delivering a revolutionary advance towards better cardiovascular health.
Dame Anne Glover, President of The Royal Society of Edinburgh and Independent Advisory Panel member, said: “All four shortlisted applications have identified big problems that desperately need to be addressed. They’ve submitted ideas that are different to anything the BHF has funded before, and the raw ambition, boldness and creativity of all teams is inspirational.
“Each member of the International Advisory Panel brings unique expertise and vision from the world of science, research and beyond. We’re intrigued to see the teams’ ideas flourish into full proposals and decide who will be given the chance to write their names into the history books by transforming heart and circulatory disease research.”
Professor Sir Nilesh Samani added: “This is high-risk, high-reward research. We whole-heartedly believe in the transformational potential of the Big Beat Challenge to save and improve lives, both here in the UK and around the world. It represents the single biggest investment in pioneering science in the BHF’s 60-year history. In an ideal world, we’d like to fund all four as each one has the chance to make a monumental impact.”