Healthy future for heart charity

It's a national heart charity – but Heart Research UK is based here in Leeds. As the organisation celebrates its 40th anniversary, Katie Baldwin heard about its achievements and the crucial part Yorkshire Evening Post readers played in its development

AS a heart surgeon in Leeds in the 1960s, David Watson knew there was a desperate need for more research.

Developments in medical techniques meant more complex surgery was possible than ever before.

But with it came considerable risks, a problem he was convinced could be overcome with additional research.

Forty years on, Mr Watson could not have imagined his bid to raise more cash for research could have have been so successful.

The charity he founded, the National Heart Research Fund, has helped save countless lives.

Heart Research UK, as it is now called, has funded over 14 million worth of research throughout the UK.

Now it is growing all the time, but it is still based in the city where Mr Watson's vision was dreamt up.

"Nobody could have imagined it," he says today, 20 years after retiring.

"It was part of my job to think ahead and try to plan for progress, but I never thought it would reach this stage.

"I never thought the charity would cover such a wide field. It was aimed to make operations safer for the patient."

Mr Watson was working as a heart surgeon at the former Killingbeck Hospital in Leeds in the 1960s when he became aware of the need for more research.

Heart surgery had been revolutionised because of new technology and great advances were already being made by the surgeon and his team.

In 1962, he performed the first hole-in-the-heart operation at Killingbeck and the same year conducted the first heart bypass operation there.

Three years later, the team performed a pioneering op to replace four heart valves.

Even so, in general open heart surgery was only carried out as a last resort at that time because the risks were so great.

After the death of a young boy following an operation, Mr Watson decided he could no longer watch people die when he knew something could be done.

He knew research would boost knowledge of the heart and mean more patients could be treated.

But getting more cash for research did not prove easy.

Approaches to the regional health authority and other avenues and charities came to nothing.

In desperation Mr Watson did something highly unusual at the time – he turned to the media for publicity.

"I was very upset at the lack of support and the lack of research and very conscious of the risks at the time.

"It was really a policy of desperation," he said.

"The Yorkshire Evening Post was always very helpful."

Stories about his work at Killingbeck and the need for more research captured the imagination of Yorkshire people and soon volunteers had come forward.

"I got tremendous support. Once people knew of the problem they came along and supported it and I was amazed," Mr Watson, now 85, said.

In 1967, the National Heart Research Fund was set up and the organisation's list of achievements since then is long.

Initially cash was raised to set up the Cardiac Research Unit at Killingbeck, which carried out research into all aspects of heart disease. Among its accolades was the development of the Killingbeck Valve, one of the first tissue valves.

In 1979 the charity funded six of the first eight heart transplants in the UK, which were carried out at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire.

Work carried out by the organisation paved the way for other firsts, like Kaylee Davidson who in 1987 became the youngest person in the UK to have a heart transplant at the age of just five months.

Now she is a champion at the World Transplant Games.

Other research work was supported all over the country and pioneering techniques continued to be developed in Leeds, including heart surgery using a laser.

Then in 2000, Heart Research UK paid for the world's first permanent artificial heart pump which was implanted in Peter Houghton from Birmingham, who had been weeks away from dying.

He died last November after becoming the longest surviving artificial heart patient, with the battery-operated pump having given him an extra seven years of life.

Three years ago the National Heart Research Fund became Heart Research UK and now funds between 2m and 3m-worth of research projects at any one time, as well as working to raise awareness of heart health.

"It gives me great satisfaction to see all the grants going out and see all the support for young researchers," Mr Watson said.

"It's been a great year for us, we have had a lot of publicity and a lot of support."

To celebrate their 40th anniversary year, a celebration was held at Leeds Civic Hall last year exactly 40 years to the day since the charity was founded.

And current Lord Mayor of Leeds, Brian Cleasby, adopted Heart Research UK as his chosen charity for the year.

He said: "Looking at the list of nominated charities by previous Lord Mayors, two facts emerged, one, it was Heart Research UK's 40th anniversary, a charity founded in Leeds, based in Leeds, and two, heart disease is a bigger killer than all the cancers put together.

"I felt then and now that I should attempt to bring this to our city's attention.

"Now, with the focus on smoking as a result of the ban, the charity's healthy heart message has an important part to play in all our futures."

Heart Research UK's director Barbara Harpham said over the past year they had funded more medical grants then ever before.

The charity has also awarded the first 200,000 grant for new technologies while other groundbreaking research continues to be done in Leeds.

Ms Harpham said work was ongoing to develop a similar pump as the one used for Mr Houghton for children.

"That would be a major breakthrough," she said.

"I think the people of Leeds should be very proud that they have a charity which affects so many people and which has done so much good work.

"For such a pioneering charity not many people had heard of us but that has changed over the last two years.

"More and more people have heard of us and more people are giving us money.

"Now we want to continue with our grassroots, which is groundbreaking and pioneering research."

To support Heart Research UK, call 0113 234 7474 or email, or to make a donation or find out about grants, log on to

Heart Research UK's achievements during its 40th anniversary year

Broke all previous fundraising records with a 30 per cent increase in funds raised from the previous year.

Funded more medical research than ever before and awarded their second NET (new and emerging technology) grant of 200,000.

Was chosen as the Lord Mayor's charity by Leeds Coun Brian Cleasby. Among the events linked to this was the raffling of a Damien Hirst sketch, which raised over 6,000.

Opened a new office in Birmingham – a step forward in the charity's goal to reach as many people as possible across the UK.

Started the first ever Healthy Heart Brownie Badge.

Awarded the first Healthy Heart Mark to the Midland Region East Area Environment Agency as part of the scheme encouraging employers to look after the wellbeing of their staff. The firm supports its employees to eat a healthy balanced diet, be physically active and to be smoke free.

Offered free school talks to year five children and visited over 60 Yorkshire schools, educating more than 2,400 pupils.

Had the most successful year ever with corporate partnerships:

Royal Bank of Scotland Bancassurance Sales Division chose it as a nominated charity

Juice company Pomegreat has teamed up with Heart Research UK

Fruit delivery firm Fruitlift is donating 50p to the charity from every box sold

Support has continued from local companies Redmayne Bentley Stockbrokers and Lupton Fawcett

Quaker Oats have chosen Heart Research UK as their charity to run for in the Flora London Marathon 2008.

Latest research funded by Heart Research UK

Dr John Greenman, a Reader in Immunology at The University of Hull has been awarded the first NET (New and Emerging Novel Technologies) 200,000 grant. Dr Greenman is developing a system to allow heart tissue muscles to be maintained in a lab long enough for tests to be done on them.

Currently isolated heart cells are used but this would mean heart tissue could be studied in its natural state. If scientists can recreate diseases in lifelike conditions, new treatments could be developed.

Leeds medical student Christopher Honstvet has been awarded a 7,000 grant to research the causes of Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm, which can result in massive internal bleeding and often death.

Leeds University medical student Victoria Green is also being funded by the charity to understand more about how cells contribute to the condition.

Community lifestyle projects have been awarded more than 450,000 since 2001 to work to reduce the risks of heart disease.

Last year 14 new projects were given up to 10,000 each, including the Yorkshire Federation of Young Farmers Clubs which will use its 5,080 for the Hearts of the Countryside project to promote heart health to young people in rural areas of Yorkshire.

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