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David Watson MBE, our founder
Heart transplant surgery
Peter Houghton and his heart pump

Heart Research UK: pioneers in the fight against heart disease for 50 years.


In the 1960s our founder, David Watson, was working as a heart surgeon at Killingbeck Hospital in Leeds at a time when open heart surgery was incredibly risky, but he was optimistic that with more research, heart surgery could become safer.

After trying to find funding from a number of sources and having many knock backs, he asked local people to help with fundraising and in 1967, the National Heart Research Fund (NHRF) - now Heart Research UK - was born


During the 1970s the NHRF went through an interesting period and was really starting to make progress as clinical and surgical treatment for heart disease became an everyday occurrence.

The late 70s saw more major breakthroughs such as the first angioplasty which was performed in 1977 a procedure that involves inserting a balloon into the blocked or narrowed artery and then inflating it to remove the blockage.  It is a treatment that is now carried out more than 20,000 times each year in the UK. During the 1970s we also funded projects to help develop new heart valves and provided new equipment to analyse ECGs and pinpoint heart disease.

The first successful heart transplants in the UK

The next major milestone was in 1979 when we funded six of the first eight successful UK heart transplants carried out by Sir Terence English at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge.

Heart transplants had been suspended almost everywhere in the world since the first flurry in the late 60s as they were deemed too dangerous. However, Sir Terence saw heart transplants being carried out successfully in America and knew it was time for the UK to allow them. He was told that if he could find the money, the Department of Health would allow him to do the operations. With the permission of Cambridge Health Authority he was able to do two operations at Papworth Hospital and then the NHRF provided the funding for a further six transplants, which led to heart transplants eventually being available on the NHS.


During this decade it was becoming more and more apparent that by getting down to the basics of cardiovascular disease we could understand its causes and start to find ways of preventing or even curing it

We funded a research unit at both Imperial College, London and the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. This allowed pioneering research using ultrasound, to study blood flow in arteries and provided expensive equipment needed to carry out physiological investigations on heart patients.

Heart researchers at the Cardiac Research Unit in Leeds ran a project to develop a telescopic ‘eye’ that could drastically improve the treatment of blocked arteries in the heart. The angioscope allowed surgeons to look within the blood vessels and fine arteries of the heart and using a laser, they can pin point an arterial blockage closely and accurately before cutting away the obstruction


We funded projects to develop existing treatments and techniques to be used safely on children. New laser techniques to clear a way through the tissue and tiny stents were created and used in child patients.

Researchers worked to improve and extend the quality of life of children and adults born with serious heart defects through the development of two new surgical procedures. The first, corrected defects to the aortic valve by replacing it with one of the patient’s own natural heart valves; the pulmonary switch replacement. The second corrected defects to the heart’s chambers by connecting the veins carrying blood from the body directly to the lungs, by-passing the defective heart altogether.

The 90s also saw an investment in refining many of the diagnostics techniques such as scanning and imaging, helping to develop a new diagnostic technique called Intravascular Ultrasound and a new probe that allowed surgeons to see forward and sideways, reducing the risk of puncturing the arteries when using a laser to burn away a blockage in the artery.

21st Century

As the National Heart Research Fund moved into the 21st century, we started to focus further on cutting edge basic science used to try and identify the root causes of heart disease, honing in on specific conditions such as heart failure, developing pioneering new devices and using new technologies

Sometimes a heart transplant is the only answer for patients with heart failure and there are around 130 heart transplants taking place each year in the UK. The alternative to a heart transplant is a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD), an artificial heart pump. Peter Houghton, from Birmingham, had heart failure and was just weeks away from death in 2000. The £70,000 Jarvik heart pump, the size of a thumb, and paid for by Heart Research UK, was implanted in Peter’s heart at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

Peter died eight years later and is the longest surviving person in the world with an artificial heart.


We’re still true to our original aims, focusing on supporting clinical and surgical projects and young researchers on their first steps into heart research. We are also heavily into the prevention of heart disease with a series of grant schemes that give communities the opportunity to improve their heart health through healthier living.

We recently added "Helping hearts" to our profile because it describes exactly what we do - helping hearts through the prevention, treatment and cure of heart disease.  Visit our grants and major projects pages to read more about the projects we’re currently funding.

The Charity's objects are restricted to the promotion and furtherance of medical research into the prevention, treatment and cure of heart disease and related conditions including practical help with the prevention and treatment and rehabilitation of those with such diseases.