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Charity funded research project could help diagnose thousands living with undetected heart condition

20 Feb 2023
AF Test

February is Heart Month and leading local health charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS) is using the month to highlight an exciting research project it is funding into a potential new test for Atrial Fibrillation. Atrial Fibrillation is the most common form of irregular heart rhythm which has an associated increased risk of stroke.

Investing in high-quality, ground-breaking research is at the heart of NICHS. Since 1994, the charity has invested almost £9 million into research in local universities and hospitals, which has advanced the prevention, treatment and care of chest, heart and stroke conditions within Northern Ireland.

Fidelma Carter, Head of Public Health at the charity says; “A key priority for NICHS is ensuring fewer people develop chest, heart and stroke related illnesses and that more people than ever survive them with an enhanced quality of life and greater independence. Research is vital to this.”

“Over the past 29 years we have supported local research by investing millions of pounds and funding a total of 117 projects. We currently have 19 projects live, with a total of £1,657,000 invested in research.”

“One of these exciting projects is being led by Dr Claire Tonry and a team from Queen’s University Belfast and they are looking at a potential new test for Atrial Fibrillation, or AF. AF is a heart condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate. Over 39,000 people in Northern Ireland are living with AF and a further 10,000 may be undiagnosed¹ ². AF can increase a person’s stroke risk by up to five times if untreated and the stroke is more likely to be severe.”

“As a result of an irregular beat, the heart may not empty its chambers of blood at each beat, increasing the risk of a clot forming in the blood left behind which can then travel to the brain and cause a stroke. Research into the detection and treatment of AF is extremely important.”

Dr Claire Tonry, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Queen's University’s Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine explains; “We are looking for new blood-based biomarkers to help detect AF. Risk for AF is currently determined based on various clinical and lifestyle risk factors, such as age, sex and underlying vascular conditions. However, not all people with AF will have these risk factors.”

“There are proteins in the blood that can be used to detect heart damage, but these are not specific to AF. AF can be quite a ‘silent’ condition so we are aiming to develop a test that can be used routinely to measure subtle changes in the blood before patients become very symptomatic of AF. In people already diagnosed with AF, we want to see if there are biomarkers in their blood which indicate if they are at an increased risk of a future stroke or heart failure.”

Dr Tonry continues; “Knowing about and being able to test for these new biomarkers could facilitate earlier AF diagnosis and intervention with treatment plans by clinicians. For people with AF, easier routine monitoring could help reduce their risk of having a stroke which is important as an AF related stroke has very poor outcomes. Overall, the findings from this research could really help improve patient prognosis and quality of life. Given the number of people affected by AF in Northern Ireland this is a very exciting prospect.”

Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke is only able to fund projects like this through local support, as almost 90% of their care and prevention services and research are funded exclusively by public donations. One of the charity’s key fundraising events, The Red Dress Fun Run 2023, is taking place during Heart Month.

The Red Dress Fun Run, supported by MACE and Musgrave MarketPlace, is a five kilometre event which not only aims to raise funds for the charity’s work but also awareness for heart disease. Last year the charity hosted their biggest and most successful Red Dress Fun Run to date, with just under 600 people taking part and a staggering £50,000 being raised.

Find out more about Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke research projects, past and present, at Sign up to the Red Dress Fun Run at