Scientists at the University of Birmingham are to investigate how a chemical found in a common garden plant could be better used to help heart patients.

Dr Davor Pavlovic has been awarded £170,000 by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to study how different patients respond to digoxin – a chemical found in foxgloves.

Digoxin was first discovered in 1785 by a noted botanist William Withering who lived and worked in Birmingham. It is currently used in medicines to treat patients with a common heart rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation and heart failure. Digoxin works by slowing the heart rate and reducing the strain placed on the heart muscle.

Recently, there has been debate between doctors about the safety and effectiveness of digoxin because, in some patients, it doesn’t always work as well as expected. But Dr Pavlovic and his team think that they may have discovered why.

Dr Davor Pavlovic, the lead researcher at the University of Birmingham, said: “We have found that a hormone in the blood - called cardiotonic steroids – may interfere with how the body responds to digoxin.

“Levels of cardiotonic steroids in the blood are higher in people with heart disease, but vary from person to person. This could be why digoxin works for some heart patients, but not as well in others.

“In this project we’re going to develop a new laboratory test for measuring cardiotonic steroids in the blood and also study their effect on heart cells in the laboratory.

“We hope that we can then use these results to propose new ways to personalise treatment for patients with atrial fibrillation and heart failure.”

Colleague Professor Wiebke Arlt is the William Withering Chair in Medicine at the University of Birmingham, commemorating the contributions of William Withering. She says “I am excited to work on this project and examine the roles of digoxin and related cardiotonic steroids, thereby going full circle back to William Withering.”

If successful, this test will then be applied to patients with atrial fibrillation and heart failure enrolled in the RATE-AF clinical trial led by Dr Dipak Kotecha.  The RATE-AF clinical trial is funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), which supports research within the National Health Service (NHS) in order to improve the health of the nation.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, added:

“Atrial fibrillation and heart failure can severely impair quality of life of people with these conditions, and current treatment options can be unpredictable.

“By funding this work we hope to answer some fundamental questions about why digoxin works less well in some patients than others. It is only because of the generous support of the public that we can invest in projects like this which seek to improve the treatments and lives of heart patients.

More than half a million people are living with heart failure, and at least a million people have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in the UK. By finding answers to important research questions, the British Heart Foundation is working to ensure that patients receive the best treatments possible. None of this would be possible without people’s generous donations in the fight against heart disease.