What is the Pulmonary Hypertension Biobank?

PH LabHave you had a blood sample taken for research purposes? If so, you’re not alone. Hundreds of pulmonary hypertension (PH) patients in Sheffield are taking part in a world-leading research programme aimed at bringing about new treatments for the disease.

The Pulmonary Hypertension Research Biobank is a growing store of blood products which are being analysed by scientists to better understand the basic biological workings underlying the development of PH.

The collection, held at the University of Sheffield Medical School and the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, includes 900 samples taken from 400 patients since it was set up in 2009. Where the study is unique is that it gathers samples from patients from before their diagnosis and over the longer-term as they undergo therapies.

Dr Allan Lawrie, who leads the talented team behind the research, believes it will lead to breakthroughs in treatment in the future as tools the scientists use for analysis become ever more sophisticated.

The Biobank was established through close collaboration between the Department of Cardiovascular Science at the university, the National Institute for Health Research Clinical Research Facility, and the Royal Hallamshire’s Pulmonary Vascular Disease Unit – the UK’s largest PH centre.

Patients are asked for their consent to take part in the study on their first clinic visit and, if they agree, the first blood sample is taken during the right heart catheterisation test. Subsequent samples are collected at least once a year. One patient involved from the start has provided samples at 11 separate visits.

On its arrival in the laboratory, located adjacent to the PH centre, the blood is processed into different components before being put in frozen storage at -80C and then analysed to address questions about the progression of PH and the disease’s response to treatments.

Tens of thousands of pieces of data have been accrued which are then merged to highlight patterns. One key area of focus is identifying biomarkers - biological properties or molecules that can be measured, and identifying new targets for drugs. There has been significant progress looking at the role of a specific protein.

Four out of ten patients at Sheffield have participated in the research as not everybody is suitable. Patient ages range from early 20s to 70s and they live as far afield as Liverpool and Birmingham. Blood taken from those patients who do not go on to be diagnosed with PH also provides valuable information. Allan said the resource is shared with other scientists nationally and internationally in the drive to develop treatments that can reverse PH rather than solely fight symptoms. He said: “Because lung tissue from transplants has become increasingly rare, we’re using blood as a model for what’s happening in the lungs. We’ve built up a huge resource by approaching the Biobank in a systematic way and maximising the strong position of UK centres to access the ‘treatment naïve’ - patients who haven’t started treatment.

“By sitting clinical and biological data alongside each other we’ve learned so much already and understand much more about how the disease works. Although new treatments have so far come from pharmaceutical-driven research, research from the academic community is starting to filter through.

“Because PH is such a rare and diverse disease, we need to keep adding to the Biobank. We’re hugely grateful to the many patients who are giving us their blood for research and want them to know the importance of it. We can’t say when it will be but there’s no doubt there will be improved treatments coming through from this research.”

The programme, which involves a team of research nurses, scientists, data coordinators and students, costs over £75,000 a year to run. Initially the Biobank was funded through a National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Unit. Since 2012 costs have been met by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) from a study researching novel biomarkers. It’s hoped funding can be secured from BHF for the next five years.

Allan would like to set up a patient panel to feedback findings to patients and find out ways the patient experience can be improved further. Anyone interested in taking part should contact Allan at a.lawrie@sheffield.ac.uk