Since 2019, we have worked in partnership with the research office to offer research fellowships of up to £50,000 to non-medical professionals in our hospitals. These grants help our researchers develop their skills and maintain Royal Brompton & Harefield hospitals’ status as world leaders in heart and lung care.

The three grant awardees selected this year by a panel of experts and advisors are: Karina Lopes, who aims to improve diagnosis of abnormal aortas in foetuses, Dr Carmel Stock, who wants to better predict the likelihood a patient with Scleroderma will go on to develop interstitial lung disease and Andreia Pinto, who will be researching how Covid-19 infects cells.

We spoke to Karina Lopes to find out how her research into aortopathy and aorta in foetuses will benefit patients.

What brought you to Royal Brompton?

I had been working as a foetal cardiologist in Brazil, but an opportunity arose to join the clinical group in 2020 as a research sonographer and I took it as I wanted to dedicate some time to research and studying.

Royal Brompton has a foetal cardiology centre, which is known worldwide. I was excited to join the group and work with these amazing people.

What led you to research aortopathy?

This is an area of ongoing research interest at the Brompton, but that has not yet been systematically studied in the foetus.

Aortopathy, that is diseases of the aorta, seen in several inherited diseases, such as Marfan syndrome, can lead to reshaping and enlargement of the aorta, and an increased risk of an aortic dissection and rupture. These are very serious conditions, life threatening, and we usually only see these in older people. However, Prof Carvalho shared with me her experience that it is possible to see some of these abnormalities in the womb.  This really interested me, particularly the possible genetic mechanisms involved, and I felt I could actively contribute to this study.

What do you hope to achieve with this grant?

The grant will allow me to conduct a research project  to establish what the normal measurements for a foetal aorta are. Right now, we just assess it subjectively. We can tell when an aorta is very abnormal, but when it's a borderline case it's quite difficult. So, establishing how a normal foetal aorta develops is really the first step.

We will scan pregnant women at different gestational ages, from 16 to 38 weeks, whose foetuses are normal. So that we will be able to establish how the normal aorta grows in size and shape throughout pregnancy. Setting up what normality is, will enable us to diagnose an abnormality. In the near future, we will be able to identify the abnormal ones, and this will, hopefully, constitute in utero objective evidence of a diagnosis for aortopathies, for example, Marfan syndrome.

How will your research benefit patients?

When we diagnose an abnormal aorta early, we can give medication to the patient to slow down the progression of aortic dilatation, and hopefully avoid surgery or the risk of the aorta rupturing later in life. This research will help clinicians diagnose abnormal aortas at the earliest possible stage.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

When we were writing the grant application, we contacted a few patients that we had scanned previously for their advice on the project. One of them said that she was really happy that she agreed to have a foetal heart scan done, as it meant she knew that her baby had an abnormal aorta. When her child was born, a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome was confirmed and the baby started on medication very early. The mother was really glad that she had this opportunity to try to change the natural course of the disease.

This is the most gratifying, being able to change the lives of babies in the future.

How do you feel about receiving this grant?

I am really honoured and grateful, because I have been selected amongst other researchers, so it's recognition of the work I'm doing.

I'm very grateful for the help, because restrictions put in place to manage the pandemic also restricted my research projects.  This fellowship is an opportunity to carry on with my research and that wouldn't be possible otherwise.

What do you want to do next?

I want to continue studying foetal aorta. This project is the beginning of a field of study, foetal aortopathy. Then, we want to compare data generated from this study with abnormal aortas, to investigate families and foetuses at risk of aortopathy. For example, we will study a pregnant woman who has Marfan syndrome in the family while also asking “what other genetic abnormalities could be involved?”

I will apply for further funding to conduct research aiming to answer these questions. I would like to continue working at Royal Brompton Hospital. I’ll see what opportunities appear.

It is through the generosity of our donors and supporters that we can fund essential research to not only improve outcomes for patients in our hospitals, but also inform the treatment of patients with lung disease everywhere. Play your part in our mission to treat and beat lung disease.