John Garth talks to a scientist whose work is inspired by the heart disease that runs in his family.

Mike Dodd

By John Garth

When his father was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening heart condition, 14-year-old Mike Dodd was concerned, but also fascinated. A sudden sense of the mysteries of the heart set him en route to what he is today: a research scientist at Oxford pioneering a new technique for studying the failing and diseased heart. 

As if to focus his mind further, he now knows he carries the gene for the same condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which can lead to sudden death through cardiac arrest. 

His father Ian’s diagnosis was alarming. ‘He started to have palpitations where he could feel his heart skip a beat, and he suddenly realised there was something wrong,’ said Dr Dodd. Soon this was accompanied by atrial fibrillation – an abnormal heart rhythm – and his father would find himself uncharacteristically exhausted. 

‘That was the driving force for me to become interested in research,’ Dodd recalls. ‘It was suddenly like, “Ooh wow, this is interesting: I want to know more about biology.” At that time I didn’t know I had the gene. At 14 I had ultrasound, and I didn’t have any thickening of the heart, but I was interested to know why my dad did, and that’s what drove me to study biochemistry at Bath.’

He went on to work for Oxford biotech company PowderMed for a year, until by chance he heard about DPhil research into HCM at the University, led by Professor Hugh Watkins. ‘He’d been treating some of my family members, and it was chance to go and work in his lab and in the University of Oxford,’ he explains.

The DPhil focused on metabolic alterations in rats and mice, and identified several noteworthy markers of heart disease. It led to the postdoctoral research that Dr Dodd has been pursuing for the past six years with Dr Damian Tyler in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics and with the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, with clinical work conducted at the John Radcliffe Hospital. 

Dr Dodd outlines the biochemical problem. ‘The heart is an omnivore. It uses mainly fat and also sugar; but when you’re exercising it will get whatever it can. It needs to maintain very high energy demand to continue pumping sixty times a minute for the whole of your life. If it needs to beat faster, or if it’s got fibrillation – where it’s wasting electrical energy – it requires more energy. And if it can’t get any more, it just makes you feel tired because it’s using energy supplies, such as extra glucose, from other sources.

‘So we’ve been using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and spectroscopy to look at changes in the heart’s fuel selection. We’ve made a tracer that shows what’s going on with sugar usage.’

The team is poised for a major step, he said. ‘We’ve purchased a clinical-grade system and we’re hoping to do the first human trials with it later in the year, looking at patients with type 2 diabetes. It’s exciting.’

Dr Dodd, who lives with his wife Kimberley in Sandhills, Headington, has also been teaching at Corpus Christi for the past year, with a non-stipendiary lectureship covering for maternity leave. Since he and his brother Chris learned that they carry the HCM gene, he has had MRI scans and ultrasound tests and his heart appears in fine fettle. Thanks to minor surgery and ongoing Warfarin treatment his father, too, remains healthy – and is delighted to have inspired such a successful career. 

‘My dad is very proud that I have made something out of something negative,’ said Dr Dodd. ‘It was the family history that got me here, and when I started in Hugh’s group I wanted to know more about HCM, though my research now is more on heart disease as a whole.  It is a bit of a leap from my work to finding a way to save lives at the moment, but something we find might be useful in the clinic, and might help myself or family.’

He added: ‘I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without the British Heart Foundation. The BHF supported me through my DPhil and through the last two years as a postdoctoral researcher, and I’m rooting for them in their new campaign on inherited heart disease.’

Image courtesy of British Heart Foundation