Exploring Cutting-Edge Cardiovascular Research: Insights from Manchester Metropolitan University Experts


Ben Diette (Academic Partnerships Manager, Health Innovation Manchester) and Dr Lloyd Gregory (Academic Partnerships Director, Health Innovation Manchester) recently spoke to Dr. Fiona Wilkinson, (Cardiovascular science research theme  lead, at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and Manchester Academic Health Science Centre (MAHSC) Cardiovascular domain Interim Academic Lead) and Dr. Stefan Birkett (Senior Lecturer in Cardiovascular Rehabilitation, at MMU) in relation to cardiovascular disease (CVD) research taking place across the Institute of Sport and Department of Life Sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University and the MAHSC Cardiovascular Disease Domain.

They shared their thoughts on where they see research addressing these diseases, how Manchester Metropolitan University are helping to understand cardiovascular health and disease, and how collaborations with clinical teams, industry partners, and the public, are shaping their research.

Dr. Fiona Wilkinson: To effectively address bench-to-community collaboration, we must adopt a multifaceted approach. Understanding the fundamental pathology of diseases through rigorous research is crucial. This involves delving into the cell and molecular mechanisms underlying conditions like cardiovascular disease, to develop novel drug therapies or repurpose existing ones. By conducting wet lab experiments using in-vitro disease models and engaging with patients, we can advance our understanding and develop new therapeutic strategies.

Leveraging existing data and samples is another valuable avenue for investigation. Through big data analysis, which has been extensively conducted within our department and faculty, we can enhance risk stratification and explore long-term outcomes associated with various diseases. This approach allows us to pinpoint key areas for further research.

In addition to our scientific endeavours, we recognise the importance of engaging with the public through showcase events. These forums provide opportunities to discuss broader topics such as preventative medicine, health education, and addressing societal needs. Central to this engagement is Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement (PPIE), which facilitates and informs dialogue on research and health issues.

Furthermore, we emphasise the significance of lifestyle interventions like prescribed exercise and dietary measures as complementary treatment strategies. Investigating vascular health and repair mechanisms are also pivotal in reducing cardiovascular risks and incidents. By integrating these approaches, we can work towards mitigating the burden of cardiovascular diseases and promoting overall well-being.

Dr. Stefan Birkett: It’s evident that cardiovascular risk factors are on the rise, mirroring trends seen in the US, particularly concerning issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes. These factors significantly contribute to the likelihood of cardiac, vascular, or cerebral events. To tackle this, we must engage with communities, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds where these risk factors are more prevalent. Education and outreach efforts need to be targeted at these under-represented communities, acknowledging and overcoming cultural barriers, with guidance from Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement (PPIE) groups.

Addressing these risk factors is paramount, given the high rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes—statistics that highlight the urgency of our approach. Adopting a widespread strategy across Greater Manchester is crucial, particularly considering that some of the UK’s most deprived areas are located here. For instance, communities like the newly established Somali community in South Manchester face significant health challenges.

To effectively reach these communities, we must leverage existing community networks and key representatives who have established trust and rapport, particularly among groups like South Asian females. By partnering with these community leaders, we can bridge the gap between MMU and these underserved populations, facilitating research development and engagement.

The NHS strategy, particularly within the cardiac network of the Northwest Coast, emphasises the importance of reducing cholesterol, managing blood pressure, and addressing atrial fibrillation—all critical in mitigating heart disease risks. Every interaction counts in this endeavour, highlighting the significance of proactive interventions and engagement at every opportunity.

Dr Fiona Wilkinson: The university has recently made a significant investment of £110 million in a new facility for our faculty, set to open this Summer. This investment includes the refurbishment of existing facilities, particularly for wet lab research, equipped with state-of-the-art technology such as microscopy, live cell imaging, blood analysis, vascular function, and a genomics suite. We also collaborate closely with the Institute of Sport, benefiting from their extensive facilities.

Within our faculty, we boast a diverse range of expertise spanning vascular biology, vascular function, cerebrovascular function, platelet biology, and applied cardiovascular physiology. The investment from the faculty extends to match-funded PhD projects via partnerships with Health Innovation Manchester and other clinical partners, charities, and industry collaborators. These initiatives aim to drive impactful research within the cardiovascular program.

Moreover, the university is strategically investing in the development of advanced 3D in vitro models for studying vascular and cerebrovascular diseases. This commitment to research is further evidenced by the recruitment of faculty members specialising in cardiovascular themes over recent years. MMU continues to prioritise recruitment in areas of strategic importance, including cardiovascular research and healthy ageing, aligning with the broader goals of the Institute of Sport.

These state-of-the-art facilities enable us to delve into the pathology and cellular mechanisms of diseases comprehensively. With ample laboratory space, cutting-edge equipment, and a talented team, we are well-positioned to conduct vital research aimed at understanding and addressing various diseases. Overall, the university’s investment underscores its commitment to fostering groundbreaking research by providing the necessary resources and support for our endeavours.

Dr Fiona Wilkinson: Confocal imaging and live cell imaging for me. They are my primary areas of interest, especially when applied to the complex cell models we’re currently developing. Additionally, we’re expanding our expertise with the inclusion of genomics suites and other technical resources. To support this growth, we’ve hired new personnel to manage these facilities and aid in our research endeavours. Overall, there has been substantial investment in our infrastructure, and our trajectory suggests continued expansion and advancement.

Dr Stefan Birkett: We’ve recently achieved a significant milestone by advancing to stage two of our NIHR grant application, a moment of great excitement for our team. Immersing myself in the NIHR framework, particularly focusing on inequalities and inclusion, has been an enlightening experience. Addressing representation and inclusion in cardiovascular research, especially among Hispanic and Black communities, has become a top priority as per NIHR guidelines.

To bridge this gap, we’ve actively engaged with community leaders like Shamime Jan, who spearheads Bolly Fit Care, a community initiative promoting health and wellness among diverse groups across Manchester. Shamime’s involvement in our NIHR grant project is invaluable, providing crucial connectivity and access to communities that are typically underrepresented in research. Recognising the importance of Patient and Public Involvement (PPI), we’re striving to facilitate access to research participation for these communities, understanding that traditional recruitment methods may not suffice.

Our efforts extend beyond proposal promises; we’re implementing purposeful sampling techniques and establishing concrete strategies to ensure the inclusion of these communities. This entails considering factors like location and cultural preferences, such as providing women-only exercise sessions in community settings rather than hospital-based programs. By fostering these partnerships and addressing the unique needs of diverse patient groups, we aim to create a more inclusive research environment and ultimately improve healthcare outcomes for all. MMU’s commitment to establishing these connections is pivotal in advancing our mission of inclusivity within research endeavours.

Dr Fiona Wilkinson: Certainly, it’s imperative for researchers across Manchester to proactively engage with underrepresented communities from the outset of their projects. This entails ensuring cultural sensitivity and addressing socioeconomic barriers, which often result in these groups being overlooked in studies. By embracing inclusivity in study populations, even if it’s a small segment, we can facilitate subgroup analysis to guide research that is applicable to all communities.

Study design plays a crucial role in achieving this inclusivity. However, it also presents challenges, such as recruitment limitations and funding constraints that may restrict the scope of research. Funding bodies are increasingly recognising the importance of accommodating these challenges to support broader community engagement and representation.

As discussed during our most recent showcase event, patient and community engagement is paramount in raising awareness and fostering participation in research endeavours. Manchester boasts various initiatives addressing these concerns, with efforts underway to communicate and engage with diverse groups effectively. While progress is evident, particularly in areas like Salford and the University of Manchester, there remains much work to be done to ensure comprehensive inclusivity and awareness across Greater Manchester.

In summary, while there are ongoing efforts to address these issues, concerted action is required to bridge existing gaps and promote equitable participation in research throughout the region.

Dr Stefan Birkett: I believe the scope of community engagement extends beyond just PPIE groups. While these groups are valuable, they inherently carry biases, as individuals who may hold strict cultural beliefs, such as South Asian women, might not be able to join PPIE groups or attend events unchaperoned due to cultural norms. This limitation is something we’ve learned through discussions with our Co-applicant, Shamime.

To overcome these barriers, it’s crucial to involve community leaders who hold strong connections within these communities. These leaders often wield significant influence and can effectively promote research initiatives within their communities. For instance, our Co-applicant plans to present the study at places of worship with the endorsement of community leaders to enhance awareness and participation.

In essence, expanding engagement efforts beyond PPIE groups and directly involving community leaders is essential for ensuring meaningful involvement and representation from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Dr Fiona Wilkinson: Effective collaborations are pivotal for the research conducted at MMU and throughout Greater Manchester. These partnerships are essential for generating impactful research outcomes and guiding the trajectory of projects. They enable us to identify unmet clinical needs, gaps in knowledge regarding disease pathology, and formulate practical study designs. Collaboration with clinicians is particularly crucial in this regard.

At MMU, we facilitate collaboration through various avenues, including showcases and collaborative events, where we discuss pressing clinical needs and assess our capacity to address them. Greater Manchester’s dynamic environment offers ample opportunities for forging connections, not only with clinicians but also with industry partners. MMU, the University of Salford and the University of Manchester have all seen success with Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) projects, highlighting the fruitful collaboration between academia and industry.

In essence, collaboration with clinicians and industry partners plays a vital role in driving research forward and translating findings into tangible outcomes. MMU stands at the forefront of such collaborations, contributing to its reputation as a leading institution in research and innovation.

Dr Fiona Wilkinson: As Stefan mentioned, the collaborations across Greater Manchester present an exciting opportunity for our domain at MMU. Our faculty offers match-funded studentships, a unique initiative that may not be available at other universities. These collaborations not only foster partnerships but also propel projects forward, particularly when resources are limited. With funding spanning three years, these projects contribute significantly to advancing scientific knowledge.

Moreover, supporting the next generation of scientists is a key aspect of these initiatives. By providing opportunities for students to engage in research, we cultivate talent and nurture future leaders in the field. Additionally, these projects facilitate the development of high-quality external funding applications, a critical step in securing further support for research endeavours across Greater Manchester.

The funding of the first student from our domain is a milestone worth celebrating, underscoring our commitment to a diverse range of projects. These projects span fundamental science, biomarker research, clinical pathway enhancements, big data analysis for risk stratification, as well as PPIE initiatives. Furthermore, step-up awards support clinical staff, including nursing and allied health and care professionals, by providing resources for research time and study implementation.

Overall, these initiatives represent an exciting investment in research and development, laying the groundwork for future breakthroughs. Moving forward, we aim to build upon this success and continue supporting innovative projects that make meaningful contributions to healthcare and scientific advancement.

Dr Stefan Birkett: It’s remarkable how accessible and collaborative everyone is across Greater Manchester, exemplified by individuals like John Moore, who plays a key role in our collaborative efforts. We’re actively developing initiatives that align with the NHS strategy, particularly in the realm of Prehabilitation (Prehab). Prehab involves preparing patients for medical interventions, such as surgery, to optimise outcomes and reduce complications. This preventive approach resonates with the NHS’s focus on prevention, especially as we approach NHS 75.

We’ve submitted grants for several Prehab studies, including ones focused on Upper GI and oesophageal  cancer, as well as a collaborative project with the Christie Hospital exploring the effects of high-intensity interval training on hypoxic cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. The aim is to improve the oxygenation environment of cancer cells, potentially reducing the need for radiation and minimising its toxicity effects.

Additionally, we’re collaborating with Tim Hayes, a consultant anaesthetist from MFT, on a home-based exercise program for patients undergoing elective bypass surgery. This program aims to enhance patients’ strength and fitness prior to surgery, with a focus on reducing postoperative complications and hospital stays.

Furthermore, we’re advancing initiatives for patients with chronic limb-threatening ischaemia, a condition with significant mortality and amputation risks. These projects aim to establish rehabilitation pathways for these patients, addressing a critical gap in current healthcare provision.

Excitingly, Platt Lane has emerged as a central hub for cancer Prehab, with plans for cancer awareness events and expanded clinical partnerships. Platt Lane’s strategic location, close to socially deprived areas with free parking, makes it an ideal site for community-based healthcare initiatives, aligning with the NHS’s shift towards community-centered care.

Overall, Prehab and rehab initiatives are thriving within our department, driven by a clear research priority and a commitment to improving patient outcomes. As Tim Cable aptly put it, these efforts represent an exciting and essential research focus for our department’s future endeavours.

Dr Fiona Wilkinson: Our overarching strategy revolves around enhancing cardiovascular health and disease understanding to benefit patients. We prioritise delving into pathogenic mechanisms to inform our research endeavours. While we already collaborate extensively with clinical groups across Greater Manchester, our aim is to further strengthen and expand these collaborations within MMU and beyond.

Our group comprises dynamic and collaborative individuals accustomed to working together seamlessly. We actively engage with clinicians and researchers from various universities in the region, contributing significantly to the broader research landscape. Our goal is to empower individuals within our theme to develop and expand their research initiatives into larger projects.

Thanks to university investment, our group boasts a diverse range of expertise encompassing vascular biology, vascular function studies, platelet and thrombosis biology, cardio and cerebrovascular physiology, and human participant studies. Our research spectrum spans from fundamental science to clinical studies, including investigations with patient populations.

Excitingly, we’re also developing various in vitro disease models to explore potential mechanisms. These models complement our clinical and participant-based studies, facilitating a seamless transition between bench and bedside research. Furthermore, we’re pioneering the development of complex 3D models of the blood-brain barrier in collaboration with our neuroscience theme, representing a promising avenue for cerebrovascular disease research.

We’re deeply committed to collaboration and welcome opportunities for partnership in any of these areas. Interested parties are encouraged to reach out, as we believe collaborative efforts are key to advancing cardiovascular research and improving patient outcomes.

The Manchester Academic Health Science Centre (MAHSC) Cardiovascular Research Domain are offering the opportunity to apply for supportive funding towards a PhD studentship to commence in the academic year 2024/25. This award is in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University and as such, will require supervisory/PI support from a member of MMU staff. Find out more here.

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