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18 July 2018

$1 million research grant could help transform diagnosis of cardiac sarcoidosis

Clinicians at Royal Papworth Hospital have been awarded a new research grant to help speed up the diagnosis of a rare heart disease.

The project, led by Royal Papworth Consultant Dr Muhunthan Thillai, is aiming to build on work already under way at the hospital - which was funded last year by the British Lung Foundation - to find a way to spot cardiac sarcoidosis earlier so patients can receive treatment more quickly.

The team, which includes Dr Lynne Williams, Dr Sharad Agarwal and Dr Katharine Tweed, is working with the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic in the US on the $1 million project. It was recently awarded funding by the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research (FSR), which means a breakthrough could come even sooner.

Sarcoidosis is a rare disease that causes small patches of abnormal tissue, called granulomas, to develop in the organs of the body, predominantly involving the lungs. For young, healthy patients the disease usually improves without treatment. However, when it involves the heart it can present severe risks of heart rhythm disturbances and even sudden death.

Dr Thillai, Lead Clinician of the Cambridge Interstitial Lung Disease Unit, said: “The condition often affects younger patients who are otherwise well. They may have lung sarcoidosis, which can be treated, but if they have cardiac sarcoidosis they can get very poorly and even die. The problem is not picking it up until it’s too late.

“Diagnosing cardiac sarcoidosis is difficult; you need to carry out lots of expensive tests, including MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (Positron emission tomography) scans. Reading MRI scans is quite a specialised skill. We’re lucky at Royal Papworth because we have a lot of experts in this area, but other hospitals don’t have that expertise.  We want to make diagnosis easier and less expensive.

“The plan is to carry out the study at 12 centres across the world, and recruit 1,000 patients – about 80-90 at each site - who will undergo a series of tests. It will give us a much better set of results than we could have hoped for. It’s a substantial amount of money and a fantastic opportunity.”

The research will launch at the beginning of 2019 and the project will last three years.

A spokesperson for the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research said: "We are excited to begin developing and finalising our next core study which will be a combination of Dr Culver and Dr Thillai’s proposed protocols focusing on cardiac sarcoidosis."