“I’ve had heart problems all my life, as I was born with a hole in my heart,” says Vicky Small from Bournemouth. When she was in her thirties, she was diagnosed with heart failure, a debilitating long-term condition.
“Living with heart failure affects me in many ways. Physically, I still feel exhausted and drained because my heart cannot pump blood through my body efficiently. But it also means that my heart will not tolerate my body carrying a child.
When Vicky was 15, her mitral valve collapsed and she underwent open-heart surgery to replace it. The mitral valve allows your blood to flow in the right direction. Unfortunately, Vicky’s heart suffered permanent damage and she developed atrial fibrillation, a condition in which the heart beats irregularly. After many complications, Vicky needed another mitral valve repair. A few years later, she then learned the terrible news that she was living with heart failure.
Although she has a history of heart problems, Vicky saw a specialist to discuss her options for starting a family with her partner. But she was told her heart would be under too much pressure if she got pregnant. “I left the meeting with the specialist feeling devastated, I always hoped I could find a way to start a family.”
Despite this news, Vicky has always been overwhelmingly positive about her future. “I feel incredibly lucky to be alive and to have what I have. Every day I wake up is a privilege and I try to make the most of it.” Vicky also finds hope knowing that the British Heart Foundation funds research that helps discover new treatments and medicines for heart failure patients like her.
How Regenerative Medicine Can Repair Damaged Hearts
25% of all deaths in the UK are caused by heart and circulatory disease. Having a heart attack can cause the loss of around 1 billion heart muscle cells, which can damage the heart and lead to heart failure. The only real cure for heart failure is a heart transplant. Regenerative medicine is a cutting-edge scientific field that examines different ways to repair (or “regenerate”) damaged areas of the body. This research is particularly urgent when it comes to the heart, which cannot be healed easily.
BHF Professor Paul Riley and his team at Oxford University work in the field of regenerative medicine. They are studying whether the growth of new blood and lymph vessels in the heart could improve heart function after a heart attack.
The lymphatic system is a drainage system that helps protect us against infection and disease. It is part of the body’s immune system. Essentially, the lymphatic system is a network of tissues, vessels, and organs that work together to remove fluid from our tissues.
Injured hearts contain excess fluid from damaged and leaky blood vessels and signals that promote inflammation and scarring. This environment is important for responding to damage immediately after a heart attack, but later it can limit the growth of new cells that could help the heart repair itself.
Professor Riley and his team have shown that promoting lymphatic vessel growth improves heart function in rodent models of heart attack.
Now they aim to examine the environment of the damaged heart and the effect of promoting the growth of new lymphatic vessels in pig hearts, bringing the team one step closer to a clinical trial in humans.
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