Reg Little meets Professor Paul Riley, whose team is carrying out pioneering research

Mending broken hearts requires time and dedication. It also requires huge sums of money.

Last week in London representatives from Oxford University and the British Heart Foundation met to discuss how a new £45m institute could be funded, which should see Oxford leading the way in combating heart disease.

The institute, to be a flagship building on the university’s Old Road Campus in Headington, will allow Oxford researchers to build on their ground-breaking discoveries that have already shown the potential of the heart to repair itself.

Learning how to regenerate the heart after a heart attack was once considered the stuff of science fiction. But Professor Paul Riley and his team are turning heart regeneration into a reality.

Now he is heading the drive to create the new Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine in Oxford, a three-storey building that will bring together 200 researchers from Oxford and across the globe. It is hoped it could be open by 2018.

The scheme should now see the first fundraising effort ever to be launched jointly by the BHF and a university, with the target expected to be in excess of £10m.

Bringing together leading researchers in one place should enable Prof Riley to translate his laboratory research into medicines to repair damage from heart attack, which can lead to heart failure. Within a decade he hopes the research will be able to teach damaged hearts to repair themselves to help the UK’s 490,000 heart failure sufferers.

Over the last 10 years Prof Riley has been investigating how the heart develops in the embryo. He moved from the UCL (University College London) Institute of Child Health to Oxford and now heads the Oxbridge Centre of Regenerative Medicine.

He and his team demonstrated in mice that certain adult heart cells could be stimulated chemically to repair heart damage.

The cells concerned, surrounding the heart, are important to the baby in the womb, contributing to growth and blood vessels. But until recently it was thought they were simply dormant in adults.

Now it has been established that the cells can regenerate new heart muscle, helping the heart pump more efficiently.

“The question is can we recapture the potential of the cell in the adult, so it behaves like it did in the embryo?” said Prof Riley.

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, of the BHF, explains: “Fewer people are now dying from heart attacks. But more and more people are surviving them with damaged hearts, which can lead to heart failure.

“The research is an important step to mending broken hearts.”

For Prof Riley, finding the means to replace blood vessels and muscle lost through heart attack amounts to “the Holy Grail”.

He said: “My vision is a world where heart damage is temporary and repairable.

“If the institute becomes a reality, our research discoveries could trigger a revolution in cardiovascular medicine.”

The key is to learn more about the genetics behind how these special cells can turn into new heart tissue.

Once more is found about how the regenerative process works, it is hoped that ways can then be found to replicate it effectively.

It is hoped this all can be achieved, perhaps within five years, by bringing together world-class regenerative medicine scientists under one roof from three separate disciplines.

Researchers from the fields of immunology and neurology will join Prof Riley and his cardiovascular research colleagues in the new building.

The protein thymosin beta-4 will be central to the future research, with the chemical known to help specialist cells surrounding the heart move to the damaged area.

The Oxford Times:

  • An artist’s impression of the proposed new institute

Although the potential of this protein is enormous, there may be other molecules that could be even more efficient at mending broken hearts. At Oxford the team is now in the process of screening hundreds of thousands of small molecules to see if they could help regeneration.

Oxford’s drug development facilities at the BHF-funded Target Discovery Institute are boosting this process.

According to the British Heart Foundation, an average of 1,386 people die in Oxfordshire every year from heart problems, some of whom may benefit from the new study.

But the centre will also carry out studies to improve understanding of the biology behind congenital heart defects. Oxford University and the BHF are now faced with raising over £10m to help build and establish a new research facility at Oxford University.

For Prof Riley the prize would be great, with the Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine benefitting people of all ages, from the tiniest baby born with a heart defect to the oldest among us struggling with heart failure.

Currently the heart charity has raised £2.3m for the centre, and hopes to reach its funding target by the end of the year.

The rest of the money will be provided by Oxford University.

The Old Road Campus in Roosevelt Drive, close to the Churchill Hospital, is set to become one of the Europe’s leading sites for pioneering research, with projects involving partnerships between Oxford University and medical charities.

The Cancer Research UK Centre in Oxford recently received a £5m boost after being awarded new status as a “major centre”.

The base, at the Old Road Campus Research Building in Roosevelt Drive, is now one of three of Cancer Research UK’s “major centres”.

The centre, which is run as a partnership by staff from Oxford University, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and Cancer Research UK, is designed to harness world-leading research to speed up treatments and increase cancer cure rates.

Priorities include the development of treatments and investment is designed to bring advances in surgery, radiotherapy and drug development.

Oxford University has also produced designs for an £11.1m Oxford BioEscalator, housing laboratories and offices for scientists and businessmen, with the hope of encouraging research breakthroughs.