Our pioneering researchers: Professor Andrew Newby

Retired BHF-Professor Andrew Newby, from the University of Bristol

Professor Andrew Newby is a world-expert in cardiovascular cell biology. He has devoted much of his 44 years in research studying the causes behind heart attacks, specifically the breakdown and stability of artery walls.

After 21 years as a leading BHF Professor at the University of Bristol he is retiring, leaving a hugely impressive legacy. Naomi Clarke, from the BHF Research Communications team, interviewed him the day before his retirement symposium.

Professor Newby’s father died of a heart attack at a young age. While studying biochemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge his father suffered his first heart attack. By the time he finished his degree his father had had three heart attacks.

“He survived amazingly. It was in the era when they just prescribed bedrest. There were no emergency callouts. By the time he’d had his third one he had completely blocked off his right coronary artery. He didn’t have any heart attacks after that until the one that killed him.

“Quite a few of my relatives on both sides have premature coronary heart disease in their family history. It drove me to want to uncover what was going in the heart — it is what sustained me through it all.”

Inspiration

Professor Newby knew he wanted to be a researcher from the young age of 13. As well as his strong personal connection to heart disease it was the inspiring lectures on medical biochemistry by the late Professor Charles Nicholas Hales that drove him into the medical area. He attributes his success to several inspiring researchers, including Professor Andrew Henderson, an inspirational BHF professor, cardiologist and leader of people.

“When I became a professor in my own right I became inspired by the enthusiasm of the young people who work with me, so I realised it works both ways.”

Ground-breaking research

The research Professor Newby is best known for is two pronged.

The first was his novel use of gene therapy to change the behaviour of cells in vein grafts used in heart bypass surgery.

“There was only one research paper on gene therapy in the cardiovascular system before we published our paper. It was produced by a team in the USA. We and a group in the USA were the first people to do gene therapy in blood vessels. We were interested in introducing genes that would stop cells from multiplying.”

Following up on this research, there is currently a clinical trial being run by Professor Andrew Baker, BHF Professor of Translational Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, is studying if gene therapy could reduce vein graft thickening, which could improve coronary bypass grafts in the future.

We and a group in the USA were the first people to do gene therapy in blood vessels

Plaque rupture

Another line of Professor Newby’s research looked at enzymes called proteases which are found in atherosclerotic plaques, the fatty tissue that builds up in the blood vessels in coronary heart disease. Along with other Bristol-based researchers, he was investigating why some plaques are more likely to rupture, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

“We’ve done a lot of work looking at the proteases which might be responsible for the plaque rupture phenomenon — there are 23 of these and we have been able to identify the bad ones so now we can target the bad ones and leave the good ones alone.”

This image is a cross-section of a ‘fatty plaque’ from a mouse artery. Fatty plaques are a mixture of ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol, immune cells and other material, which can build up in arteries and eventually rupture, starting a blood clot which can cause a heart attack or stroke. This image was created using a technique called immunoflourescence microscopy. Credit: Professor David Greaves

Problem-solving

Many scientists think of themselves as problem solvers. As Professor Newby explains, science requires patience and determination, as well as the ability to ask the right questions.

“Every problem you solve always throws up other problems in science — but with each one you get more and more focussed. You start with a long, far away, idea which is not very clear. It’s a bit like microscopy, you click down another level of magnification and you can see more detail and it’s only when you get to a very, very detailed level that you actually have the tools needed to do anything about it.”

Being productive through collaboration

The BHF’s research strategy to 2020 emphasises the importance of collaboration between researchers, institutions and research funders like the BHF. As part of this the BHF is supporting research collaborations across borders and disciplines, and joining forces with other funders such as the Stroke Association to support more comprehensive research programmes.

Professor Newby describes how he became aware of the importance of collaboration:

“I probably learnt too late in my career the benefits of having a very wide network of collaborators. About 15 years ago I became part of a European network of excellence. From having a fairly narrow group of collaborators suddenly we had 40 of the best minds in Europe working together. I just wish I had had this opportunity earlier on.”

Professor Newby with BHF Professors Costanza Emanueli, Paulo Maddedu and Gianni Angelini, and their teams at the Univeristy of Bristol

The impact of leaving the EU

Professor Newby has seen first-hand the importance of recruiting talented scientists from across Europe and the rest of the world.

“The biggest change in our ability to do work in Bristol over the last 10 years has been the recruitment of BHF Professor Costanza Emanueli and Professor Paolo Maddedu. And of course the whole setup wouldn’t have ever got started without BHF Professor Angelini. So if you imagine a world where it’s not possible to recruit these excellent people from across Europe it would have a disastrous effect on research.

Around three quarters of the collaborators Professor Newby has worked with are from other parts of the world.

“It’s based on getting people from all over the place, no matter where they are, no matter what colour they are, no matter what religion they are, and getting them to work here where we have this concentration of expertise. Anything that threatens that would be disastrous for research and development in the UK. And of course it’s a fantastic income for the country having students willing to come here from overseas. Anything that choked off the supply of international students would also be a disaster both economically and in terms of future intellectual capital.”

Hopes for the future

Since the BHF was established in 1961 the annual number of deaths from CVD in the UK has fallen by half.

“It’s important to acknowledge the incredible progress that has been made in cardiovascular disease. There are certain heart problems which, thanks to research, we have effectively solved. For example, your chances of suffering a heart attack are now about a quarter or maybe even a fifth of what they were when I started my research. My dad got his first heart attack when he was 50, most people get their heart attack after 70 now. It’s not quite job done but we’ve made terrific progress.”

But there is still a lot of work to be done.

“One of our focuses over the past 20 years has been heart failure. We have arrived at the point where we think that we understand the scar formation that happens after a heart attack, which can lead to people getting heart failure. This is a completely new focus. Going forward focusing more energy into that area will yield major benefits to heart failure patients.”

The legacy of Professor Newby’s research will continue to contribute to the fight against heart disease for many years to come, helping people suffering with heart disease and opening doors for new paths of research.

Find out more about the British Heart Foundation’s life saving research.