A Student’s Life-Saving Heart Research
A student from Hampshire has made a scientific breakthrough that could save the lives of people – specifically athletes – with an undiagnosed heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).
HCM is an inherited condition in which the heart’s muscle wall becomes thickened and stuff. This makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood out into the rest of the body and can lead to the heart stopping suddenly.
In the UK, around one in 500 have the condition, although most people who have it suffer from few symptoms, the most common of which are shortness of breath, lightheadedness (and fainting), heart palpitations and chest pain.
Sometimes, a person with HCM may never have any serious problems related to it, and the symptoms can be controlled with treatment, but some people find that as they get older the symptoms worsen or become harder to control.
Henry Roth, 18, is an aspiring doctor and was inspired to investigate HCM after his uncle died from sudden cardiac death at the age of only 21. During tests on his own heart at St George’s Hospital in London, Henry spoke with his cardiologist, Professor Sanjay Sharma, and a research project emerged.
While there are indeed screening tests for HCM – including an electrocardiogram (ECG, that measures the heart’s electrical activity), an echocardiogram (shows the heart’s pumping action) and measuring the peak oxygen consumption level of the heart – intense physical exercise can also lead to a thicker heart. This means that if an athlete has the condition, it might not come up in the tests and so they might not even be aware they have it.
The teenager discovered that not only are black athletes at a higher risk of having the condition, but black and white people have different peak oxygen consumption levels. However, when doctors test the oxygen consumption level for HCM, they use the same cutoff point for everyone. So, some people with the condition are wrongly thought to be without it.
Using the knowledge that different tests are needed for black and white people, Henry said he was shocked that it wasn’t discovered sooner and wants to find a better way of testing for HCM.
Professor Sharma, who is also the medical director for the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) and the London Marathon, said that he was both astonished and excited by Henry’s research. “Henry has a thirst for researching the heart… He wants to make sure families don’t go through what he has experienced,” he said. “Henry’s work has the potential to change the way we test athletes for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.”
Henry, who was also a National Science and Engineering Competition (NSECUK) finalist, will continue his research at the hospital before taking a gap year and then hopes to pursue a career in medicine.