Losing hearts and minds

Further embarrassment for Cardiff University as School of Medicine cardiologist awarded prestigious BHF fellowship – after being told that are “at risk” of redundancy by University

£5.15mil of the BHF’s £5.25mil research investments in Wales are focused on Cardiff University, which is considering disinvesting from Cardiology research activity

An academic associated with Cardiologist Prof. Tony Lai’s research group, Dr. Spyros Zissimpoulos, has been awarded a prestigious research fellowship from the British Heart Foundation (BHF). Yet Gair Rhydd can reveal Prof. Lai and all members of his research group – including Dr Zissimpoulos – make up some of the 69 academics also said to have received “at risk” letters warning of potential redeployment or redundancy as part of MEDIC Forward, an ongoing project to restructure the School of Medicine.

The fellowship was confirmed by a BHF spokesperson. While they could not offer comment on the fate of the fellowship should should Tony Lai’s group be disinvested from, they did confirm that that approximately £5,150,000 – of a total £5,250,000 at the last funding round – of the charity’s funded research in Wales was invested in Cardiff University.

Only £94,000 was spent elsewhere: £84,000 was allocated to projects at Swansea University, and just £8,0000 was allocated to Bangor. Coronary Heart Diseases is the biggest killer in Wales, and numerous observers have described cutting cardiology as being in conflict with the public interest.

Prof. Peter Weissberg, medical director at the BHF, spoke to Gair Rhydd and confirmed that the BHF’s future investments in Cardiff University depended on the outcome of MEDIC Forward: “BHF’s future investment at Cardiff University will be dependent on [MEDIC Forward] demonstrating a clear commitment to cardiovascular research through local resource allocation”.

It was understood that prior to the withdraw of Prof. Alan Williams’ “at risk” letter the management of the School of Medicine was considering disinvesting from Cardiology research very broadly. Gair Rhydd has received reports that every heart researcher in the Wales Heart Research Institute (WHRI) received an “at risk” letter. Given that nearly all of the BHF’s research funding in Wales is focused on Cardiff University, divestment on this scale would have had a sever inpact on the charity’s current research activity.

As with Prof. Ludgate, Cardiff University offered no comment on the circumstances surrounding Prof. Tony Lai and his team, beyond stating that it woul dbe inappropriate to comment while the consultation period continues.

Dr Zissimpoulos’ research project concerns drugs that can stablise on of the heart’s calcium channels, ‘RyR2’. When the RyR2 channel is faulty, it can be fatal. It is hoped that this research will help prevent an irregular heart rhythm forming in some patients.

In recent weeks, there have been  numerous concerns raises regarding the appropriation of funds and working space in the Sir Geraint Evans building, which was built to house the WHRI. As is the case with mode medical academics warned that that their careers at Cardiff University might end, the cardiologists of the WHRI are part of the Institute of Molecular and Experimental Medicine (IMEM).

The building was constructed to secure a working space for academics specialising in cardiology. Yet Gair Rhydd has received reports that researchers with research interests outside of Cardiology have now also taken up residence in the Sir Geraint Evans building in spite of the the fact that the consultation has not yet concluded.

We can confirm that at least one academic from another field (Timothy Rainier, a neurologist) is conducting research in the Sir Geraint Evans building. The university refused to offer any confirmation as to the academics currently using the building’s research spaces, instead saying that “no significant changes have been made to the occupancy of the Sir Geraint Evans Building,” and that the “vast majority” of research housed in the building concerned cardiology.

A spokesperson said that the Univestiy was “very grategul to the generosity of the people of Wales who contributed to the Sir Geraint Evans Building.” But questions remain as to why so many of the researchers working in the building were threatened with redundancy.

One source said that the responsibility for the “Cardiovascular Research Development Fund”, previously handled by IMEM, had been transferred to the central management at the School of Medicine. There has been no communication about what would happen to the fund should the Sir Gerain Evans Building be repurposed and Cardiology research disinvested from, despite warning of the possibility. The legacy fund was comprised of funding from various sources, including charities and bequeathments (money left in wills for heart research).

There are concerns that transferring responsibility for the fund from management team to another has done more harm than good to heart research, and may have prevented further cardiovascular research. One source within the school spoke to Gair Rhydd and said: “Last year (Before MF was officially announced) control over the money was removed from the heart research centre and handed to the College, as was the money. That money is now in the College central fund, it will be used for research but not for the research the [benefactors] intended it for. I think if I had left money for heart research to an institute specifically set up for this purpose I’d be pretty pissed off to find out that it was [no longer under their control].”

The same sourced added: “It was done in a very underhanded way. Some people have even suggested that it almost equates to theft. I wouldn’t go that far but the intention was to prevent the research group from using money left to them for research to carry on with their research or start anything new.”

The University has since confirmed that the fund is now handled by the management of the School of Medicine: “We recognise how important charitable donations are in the support of many facets of medical research including cardiovascular research. We take the management and oversight of donations very seriously and want to ensure that we deliver the best value for money for our supporters and stakeholders.”

“To this end, the governance of the Cardiovascular Research Development Fund has now been updated and brought into line with University and Charity Commission rules and guidelines for best practice. The governance committee is now run at College level (the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences) to ensure that funding is available to all cardiovascular researchers, and decisions on resources allocation reflect the wider cardiovascular research strategy beyond the School of Medicine”.