The British Heart Foundation has awarded grants worth Pounds 4.5 million for research ranging from finding new ways to curb the growth of harmful bacteria in the heart to developing a better understanding of the link between age and blood pressure.
The anti-bacteria work will be carried out at the universities of Bristol and Bath. The Pounds 115,000 project aims to explain the role of the metal manganese in infective endocarditis, in which bacteria infect the heart valves causing serious illness. The condition usually affects people with existing damage to the heart, for example those born with abnormal hearts or those who have undergone some surgery.
Researchers believe that manganese is vital for the growth of bacteria that cause the condition. They are looking at how the substance is taken in and used by the bacteria in order to disrupt the process with drugs or vaccines. Project leader Howard Jenkinson, based at Bristol University, says: "With the spread of bacteria that are more resistant to antibiotics it is vital to look for new ways to treat and even prevent infective endocarditis in those at risk."
The project on the link between blood pressure and age is to be carried out by scientists at Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and Postgraduate Medical School.
High blood pressure is a main risk factors for heart disease and strokes and as people age their blood pressure often rises.
The Pounds 110,000 project will make use of special microscopes to study small samples of tissue from volunteers. By noting differences in the number of small blood vessels called capillaries, they hope gain insights into the way in which small arteries and veins are able to contract and relax. These actions are though to play a vital role in regulating blood pressure.
Samples will be taken from 60 patients with high blood pressure. These will then be compared with those from over-60s with normal blood pressure and samples from people under 40 with normal blood pressure.
The team believes its work will show that progressive damage to the insides of the blood vessels, from diet and other risk factors, prevents the vessels from compensating for rises in blood pressure.
The foundation is also backing researchers at Birmingham University with a Pounds 75,000 grants for a project aimed at finding out if gene therapy can be used to treat people with high blood pressure.
One of the biggest problems facing the developing gene therapy, in which doctors try to replace faulty genes with new copies, is getting the replacement genes into the right cells in the body. Birmingham researchers led by Leonard Seymour have developed a new substance which they believe may help overcome this problem.
The project will test a polymeric substance to see if it can act as a vehicle for getting new genes into liver cells. They hope that this could be used to help those patients who have high cholesterol because of a faulty gene in their liver cells. The cells need the gene to make a protein which controls cholesterol levels in the blood.
Dr Seymour said: "So far lots of attempts to use gene therapy have failed, especially because of this problem of getting replacement genes into the right cells. It is vital to keep looking for new ways of overcoming this hurdle. Our early research with this polymer has been very promising."