British Heart Foundation

Scientific progress and compassionate care

The British Heart Foundation has a shared history of discovery with the NHS


n the late 50s and early 60s, there was a recognition that action was needed to tackle the epidemic of heart and circu- latory diseases, in particular coronary artery disease.

Te causes of heart and circulatory

diseases were poorly understood and there were very few treatments. Heart and circula- tory diseases accounted for more than half of all deaths in the UK. Dying of a heart attack was very com-

mon. Most people didn’t survive if they had one outside of hospital. If you did survive and made it to hospital, you would be given painkillers such as morphine and kept in bed for six weeks. But survival rates were low. Medical science had not yet understood

that heart attacks were caused by blood clots. Tis population health challenge prompted

a group of doctors to found the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in 1961. Tanks to the generous support of the public, the BHF has funded hundreds of millions of pounds of re- search, saving and improving lives worldwide, and has pioneered treatment ever since.

1960s: CORONARY CARE UNITS Te BHF helped set up the first coronary care unit, by funding equipment and nurses, and set a global standard. If you were admitted to hospital today,

you’d expect to be placed on a specialist ward dedicated to your condition. But in the late fifties and early sixties, the coronary care unit was an unheard of concept. Heart patients were scattered around a hos-

pital on general wards. If a patient went into cardiac arrest, there was often a lengthy delay before the right staff and equipment could be brought to the scene. Tese delays cost lives. Professor Desmond Julian at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary had a better idea. Just a

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junior doctor in 1961, he sketched out a plan for a specialist coronary care unit. He wanted to keep all heart patients in the unit, monitor them continuously and have the right equip- ment – and the right staff – on standby for emergencies. In its first year the unit saved the lives of an

extra seven out of every 100 patients admitted compared to the old method. Soon hospitals around the world were following the example set by the man who, in 1986, would serve as the BHF’s Medical Director until 1993.

1970s: HEART ATTACK TREATMENT In 1976, BHF Professor Michael Davies proved that heart attacks are caused by a blood clot in a coronary artery, setting the stage for a revolution in treatment. Before the 1970s, heart attacks were

poorly understood, and the best treatment doctors could offer was bed rest.

TREATING BABIES Now, thanks to BHF-funded research, more than eight out of ten babies with congenital heart disease will reach adulthood. In 1961, less than half of children born with

a heart defect lived to their first birthday. In 1974, the BHF started funding Professor

Bob Anderson, who pioneered our under- standing of anatomy of the heart and heart defects. Following his work, BHF surgeons, including Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, pio- neered new surgical techniques for repairing babies’ hearts that are now used worldwide.

1980s: CLOT-BUSTING DRUGS In the 1980s, the BHF funded an international study led by Peter Sleight and Professor Rory Collins, which revealed the life saving poten- tial of the clot-busting drug streptokinase, as well as aspirin, for treating heart attacks. Tanks to this pioneering research, 70% of people now survive a heart attack in the UK.

STATINS In 1989, BHF Professor Stuart Cobbe led a trial which revealed that people with high

cholesterol could reduce their risk of having a first-time heart attack by around 25 per cent by taking statins. Today, statins, which work to lower the

level of cholesterol in your blood, are the most commonly prescribed medicines in the UK.

HEART TRANSPLANTS BHF Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub and Sir Terrence English helped make heart trans- plantation a success story. In 1985, six years after Professor English

succeeded in getting government support for his heart transplant programme, a Depart- ment of Health study demonstrated that transplantation was ‘much more cost effec- tive than any other procedures in medicine.’ As a result, the Department of Health

began funding both Papworth and Harefield as centres of heart transplantation, with the Harefield team led by Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub. Now, thanks to the early work of Professor

English and Professor Yacoub, around 200 heart transplants are carried out on adults in the UK each year.

1990s: STATINS In 1994, BHF Professor Rory Collins launched a huge trial which showed that even people with ‘normal’ cholesterol could lower their risk of future heart attack or stroke by taking statins.

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