Expanding the heart and lungs of medicine

 

Fundraising is under way for a joint Cambridge University and Papworth Hospital Heart and Lung Research Institute – to sit alongside the anticipated new Papworth Hospital on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus – enabling a major expansion of cardiorespiratory research in Cambridge.

 

Plans (subject to final design selection) of the Heart and Lung Research Institute (left) and new Papworth Hospital to be located on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus

Diseases of the heart and lung are some of the biggest killers worldwide. According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease causes an estimated 17 million deaths per year, with respiratory disease ranking just behind with 4.2 million deaths. Despite a growing awareness of risk factors, such as smoking and poor diet, the prevalence of such diseases is increasing.

Cardiorespiratory research has seen significant growth in Cambridge over the past 15 years. The University now has five British Heart Foundation (BHF) professorships and three Chairs in respiratory medicine. Fundraising is under way to expand yet further, with the creation of a new Heart and Lung Research Institute (HLRI) by the University and Papworth Hospital, to sit alongside the new Papworth Hospital which is anticipated to relocate to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

“The growth trajectory in cardiorespiratory research here has been pretty phenomenal,” explained Professor Martin Bennett, who holds the BHF Chair of Cardiovascular Sciences. “The ambition for the HLRI is to put two excellent partners together synergistically, achieve a critical mass of clinical and basic scientists who have a single focus on cardiorespiratory disease, and create something truly world leading.”

“The HLRI will provide a virtuous cycle of discovery,” added Professor of Respiratory Medicine, Edwin Chilvers. “By bringing together researchers of different disciplines – basic, clinical, population science – and adding a specialist R&D unit, you can cover every step in the chain from fundamental research through to drugs and devices being used in patients.”

The Institute will allow for significant expansion of basic and clinical research capacity, with 40% new recruitment over and above existing staff levels, as well as enable the co-location of research groups that are currently dispersed across Cambridge.

Crucially, it will take research collaboration between the University and Papworth Hospital to a new level, as Chilvers explained: “There is already strong connectivity. Each institution has its own strengths: the University has huge basic science and translational research capacity, and Papworth is an international centre of excellence for the treatment of patients, some of whom have the rarest and most difficult to diagnose and treat forms of disease. The two have joint research and treatment programmes, and the new Institute will allow the scientists and clinicians to work geographically together for the very first time.”

The research portfolio of the HLRI will be drawn both from the University, where the cardiorespiratory research portfolio amounted to £164 million last year in research grants from sources that include the BHF, Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust, and Papworth Hospital, where nearly 140 active research projects are pioneering new treatments and surgical approaches.

However, the HLRI offers the opportunity for a major new strategic realignment of cardiorespiratory science. Chilvers and Bennett, together with Dr Ian Smith, Consultant Physician at Papworth Hospital, are responsible for developing the Institute’s scientific vision, which has been organised under six themes: arterial disease, heart and lung failure, population studies, infection and immunity, lung cancer, and evaluation and implementation.

A growing area of research within the theme of heart and lung failure is the potential for stem cells to be used to repair damaged tissues, an area that is being led in Cambridge by Professor Karl Ludwig Laugwitz, who was recently awarded a BHF Professorship of Regenerative Medicine. The hope is that patient-specific stem cells derived from blood might be used to develop personalised treatments and generate options aside from transplantation for the repair of damaged organs.

Biomedical devices are central to the practice of cardiorespiratory medicine. Devices are used to open blood vessels and airways, replace heart valves, pace the heart and diaphragm, and assist the heart to pump blood and the lungs to ventilate effectively. “Papworth clinicians have led on the development of ground-breaking technologies, and there will be huge new opportunities when the HLRI is established at the heart of the Biomedical Campus,” explained Smith, who will lead the evaluation and implementation theme, which will build on existing collaborations with University researchers and industry.

As well as focusing on achieving a better understanding of the basis of cardiorespiratory disease and its treatment, research at the Institute will be increasingly directed towards prevention and the interplay between genetics and lifestyle. A proposed Biomarkers Laboratory for population studies will translate the findings of several unique population studies on the causes of cardiovascular disease into strategies for predicting, preventing and treating diseases. Such studies include EPIC-Heart, an analysis of genes and lifestyle in 520,000 people across Europe that is being led at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care by Professor John Danesh, who will lead the population studies theme of the HLRI.

Clinical trials are also a critical part of the research process, and the Institute will incorporate a new and dedicated Clinical Research Facility. Already, for conditions such as pulmonary hypertension, Papworth Hospital is the largest referral centre in the UK, and new treatment strategies are benefiting from close ties with the Department of Medicine under the leadership of Professor Nick Morrell.

Not least, the HLRI will enable enhancement of education and training, as Bennett explained: “We want to be a major centre for training the next generation of clinical scientists in this area, as well as provide unrivalled opportunities to attract new investigators to the UK. The setup will allow unrivalled access to patients, and optimal support and facilities for translational and clinical studies. Our vision, once funding is in place, is to create a world-class research environment leading to improved patient care.”

For more information, please contact Louise Walsh (louise.walsh@admin.cam.ac.uk) at the University of Cambridge Office of External Affairs and Communications.

This story originally featured on the University of Cambridge’s news site.