Mending broken hearts

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Mending broken hearts

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The story

Hope has arrived in the UK – hope that is for the thousands of people who suffer from heart failure.

You may have seen the British Heart Foundation’s new campaign on TV recently

promoting their ‘mending broken hearts appeal’ which aims to help raise £50 million to go towards research into mending hearts following a  heart attack.

The tissue damage following a heart attack is permanent and for some people this can lead to heart failure.  Over 750 000 people are living with heart failure in the UK and the numbers are growing every year.  Living with this debilitating illness is a daily struggle but there is only so much that surgery and drugs can do to help.  The BHF is hoping that the research it is funding can help find a way to restore healthy heart function.

Teaching ideas

The heart

You can use this campaign as a way of teaching about what a heart attack is and why it leads to heart failure.  This could be a way of KS3 students applying what they have learnt about respiration.  If they are told that the heart muscle is supplied with blood in the coronary arteries, can they predict what might happen if one of these got blocked and why this damage is permanent?  It could also be used with GCSE classes when teaching about the heart.

Healthy lifestyle

You may wish to discuss with classes why the number of people living with heart failure has risen in the UK.

This infographic from the BHF’s website has potential for discussions on the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.  The two coloured graphics seem to contradict one another.  How could it be so that the number of people dying from a heart attack has decreased, yet the number of people living with heart failure has increased?

The following question gives students an opportunity to write an exam style answer worth 6 marks as practice for the change in style of exam questions in the new GCSEs starting this September.

Question: Describe the trends in the last 50 years of the number of people dying from coronary heart disease and those living with heart failure and suggest reasons for them (6 marks)

Answer: The graphic shows that the number of people dying from CHD has decreased (1), due to better treatment and William hill entra nel nostro elenco dei casino online italiani perche ti offre davvero tanto divertimento. also increased awareness of the symptoms of heart attacks so people receive medical care more quickly (1)
Conversely, the number of people with heart failure has increased (1)  Heart failure can be a symptom of coronary artery disease caused by the build-up of cholesterol and fatty deposits (atherosclerosis) on the coronary arteries, also high blood pressure (1)  The likelihood of deveoping these increases through smoking, lack of exercise, stress, obesity and a diet high in fat.  All of these (apart from smoking) have increased since the 1960s (1) Also, as treatment of heart attacks have increased, so has the number of people surviving them (1)  Unfortunately, these people would have to live with the permanent damage caused by the heart attack.

Stem cells

Some of the research being funded by the BHF is looking at the potential use of stem cells in the treatment of heart failure.

One research team is working on using stem cells taken from the patient’s own veins to promote the growth of new heart cells and blood vessels.  The veins used to grow the stem cells would be taken from the patient during a previous bypass operation.  Using veins collected in this way as the source of stem cells avoids potential rejection due to tissue incompatibility.

The type of stem cells produced from the veins are known as progenitor cells.  These are cells that are only able to differentiate into a very limited number of tissue types (oligopotent).  Embronic stem cells are pleuripotent which means they have the ability to differentiate into every type of cell in the body and so these remain the most potentially useful type of stem cells.  However, there are many ethical concerns raised with using cells from embryos and so research into this is strictly regulated.  A lesson idea is a debate about whether embryonic stem cells should be researched into as a potential cure for illnesses such as heart failure,Parkinsons or spinal injury.  The BEEP website offers some useful resources on looking at the ethics of stem cell therapy.

Tissue regeneration in zebrafish

Another research project is concentrating on the zebrafish and its amazing ability to regenerature heart tissue.  Following injury, adult heart muscle cells regress to a stem-cell like state and re-differentiate to form cells that can repair the organ.  Researchers are hoping that by studying the gene expression in the zebrafish that switches on heart regeneration they can target develop in treatments that can do the same in humans.

There is an opportunity here for KS5 biology students to look at the use of animals in medical research and why the zebrafish is such a good model for this type of research is covered in the video on the BHF website.

And finally…

If you are looking for an worthy recepient of money from the next school fund-raising event, or want to run an ‘mending broken hearts’ appeal (idea for science week?) you can download the appeal pack here.


BHF’s channel on youtube – contains other useful videos on heart disease.

Basic science from the BHF website that would be suitable for students doing their own research.

Information and video explaining how the zebrafish heart can regenerate – suitable for KS5 biology.

Well worth taking a look at these stem cell resources on the Learn. Genetics website.