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BHF: continuing lifesaving research and investing in NI’s economy

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has been at the forefront of research, raising awareness of cardiovascular diseases and helping save lives, for more than 60 years. But it also plays a vital role in not just the health of the local people but the health of the economy, says Fearghal McKinney, head of BHF NI


Fearghal McKinney, head of BHF Northern Ireland

Fearghal McKinney, head of BHF Northern Ireland

Dr Karla O'Neill

Dr Karla O'Neill


Fearghal McKinney, head of BHF Northern Ireland

Research the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has funded over the last six decades has turned ideas that once seemed like science fiction into treatments that save lives every day.

The heart research charity’s work has helped cut the number of deaths due to cardiovascular disease in half. Science funded by the BHF has contributed to a range of important discoveries, including the first UK heart transplant, pacemakers, the use of clot busting drugs to treat heart attacks, and the rollout of genetic testing for inherited heart conditions.

But it’s also a key driver for our wider economy here, as well as forging relationships with the business community.

And the economic contribution of the BHF can’t be underestimated. A recent study by the Fraser of Allander Institute highlights that, Fearghal says.

“There is a huge economic impact. Charities funded £16m of medical research in Northern Ireland in 2019. That supported 500 jobs, £39m in output and £26m in GVA (gross value added).

“And for every £1m spent on medical research by charities here, it generates £1.63m for the Northern Ireland economy, putting it ahead of industries like construction and retail.

“Without charity funding, the public sector would therefore need to increase their direct funding of health-related research in Northern Ireland by an estimated 51% to cover the shortfall.

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“We harness the power of science to take on the world’s biggest killers, whilst investing in the local economy.”

In the 1960s, when the BHF was founded, seven out of 10 heart attacks in the UK were fatal. Now, thanks in part to research the public have helped fund, at least seven out of 10 people survive. Northern Ireland’s place is firmly on the map in terms of medical research breakthroughs.

Hillsborough native, Professor Frank Partridge, developed the first mobile defibrillator – a device which has gone on to save countless lives across the world.

And some of Northern Ireland’s top research talent is continuing on that work today.

“We have been leading research for more than 60 years, and that has managed to half the extent of deaths from cardiovascular disease – that’s a huge thing,” Fearghal says.

“Here in Northern Ireland we funded Prof Andriana Margariti and her team at Queen’s University who discovered a gene that increases the risk of blood vessel damage in people with diabetes. Switching off this gene could help people with diabetes live longer, healthier lives.

“And just last month through BHF funding Dr Karla O’Neill began research that will help to bring us a step closer to creating treatments that can restore the body’s ability to grow new blood vessels (angiogenesis) in people with heart and circulatory conditions.

“But heart disease remains one of the biggest killers in Northern Ireland, and there are many families across Northern Ireland waiting for the next medical breakthrough, that is why every donation, every corporate partnership with BHF goes toward helping us get closer to the discovery of new treatments and cures.

“We know that the depth and breadth of our research really does wonderful things in terms of life saving work.”

Northern Ireland has a burgeoning health and life sciences sector, and the Department for the Economy’s 10X economic vision places the life and health sciences sector, which employs over 8,500 people in Northern Ireland, at the forefront of the economic recovery.

“Collaboration between researchers, industry, charities, the health system and government is key to ensuring we have a thriving research environment to find the medical treatments of the future.”

Fearghal said the charity relies on the support of the public to carry out its life saving work. He said they are particularly keen to hear from local businesses who might want to support not just medical research but also boost the economy they live and work in.

“Charity funded research paid for by public donations can play a pivotal role in helping us recover economically from the effects of the pandemic.

“When you support the BHF you aren’t just powering top class medical research or our work to bring CPR training to post-primary schools in Northern Ireland, you are investing in your local economy, powering jobs and making here an even better place to live and work.”

The BHF doesn’t just fund medical research. The charity also has an ambitious aim to triple the number of people who survive a cardiac arrest across the UK. The charity is forging ahead with this aim in Northern Ireland. After a long running campaign, in March 2022, the Education Minister legislated for CPR training and defibrillator awareness to become a mandatory part of the post-primary school curriculum.

They also funded the development of The Circuit – The National Defibrillator Network - a database which connects defibrillators to NHS ambulance services across the UK, so that in those crucial moments when someone is having a cardiac arrest, they can be accessed quickly to help more people survive.

“Every year in Northern Ireland approximately 1,400 people have a cardiac arrest outside of hospital but devastatingly less than one in 10 survive. Every second counts when someone has a cardiac arrest and, alongside CPR, prompt use of a defibrillator is critical in giving them the best chance of survival. To put it simply, knowing where the nearest defibrillator could be, is the difference between life and death.

“By mapping all those defibrillators and training more people in CPR skills we are making huge strides towards achieving our ambition.

“But we can’t do any of our work without the support of the public. We are especially keen to hear from local businesses and we can tailor a mutually-beneficial partnership where there are plenty of ways to suit your organisation and objectives.” 

To get in touch with Fearghal McKinney email mckinneyf@bhf.org.uk. To learn more about BHF research visit bhf.org.uk