Class of 2018: Beating new life into a rejected heart

Dr Omar Mownah

Published on 06 July 2018

Organ shortage is one of the most pressing issues concerning the field of transplantation, with hundreds of Britons a year dying while on the transplant waiting list, and coronary heart disease being one of the biggest killers in the UK.

However, a percentage of donor hearts are not used each year due to their unsuitability for organ donation. Omar’s work developed a machine that could be used to assess and restore hearts for transplantation that currently would not be used. The device was used to revive heart function successfully in a number of cases.

It’s hoped the device will be used in hospitals in the future, helping to reduce transplant waiting lists.

Omar, who began his PhD whilst a doctor in the early years of surgical training, worked on the research alongside his supervisor Dr Noel Carter, a Reader in Molecular Biology at Sunderland, and Professor David Talbot at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital

Omar, 36, from London, says: “I thoroughly enjoyed my time working under the supervision of Dr Carter and Professor Talbot.  I learned a great deal from them and overall conducting research alongside them was an exciting experience. The research we undertook was a particularly novel topic and we were able to demonstrate a new technique which could be applied to hearts and offer new hope for patients requiring heart transplantation.”

He explained: “We demonstrated enough evidence in our results to be able to begin clinical testing on human hearts that are considered too marginal to be used for transplant or as a source of heart valves.

“Heart surgeons have to be 100 per cent positive that this vital organ is going to work before transplantation, which is why a large percentage end up being not used. Our research wanted to take those rejected hearts, get them restarted, carry out echocardiograms and tests in a sterile environment to check activity and show them to be in perfect working order. We believe then a proportion could be reconsidered for transplantation.”

The research team used specialist circulatory equipment and defibrillators to perfuse warm, oxygenated blood through the hearts and ensured good dialysis to filter out unwanted products from the circuit thereby restoring the heart’s metabolic activity.

Dr Carter added: “We devised a series of parameters to test the hearts and ensure that they would be viable if a transplant goes ahead. We believe this could offer new hope for patients and see a greater increase in heart transplants.”

He said: “Omar proved to be a dedicated hard-working student who has produced a number of papers from his PhD research, which potentially could have a significant impact the field of transplantation. We are delighted to see him graduate today after all his efforts.”

Professor Talbot added: “It’s been fantastic working with Sunderland. The University has been very supportive of our surgical trainees over the years looking to progress their careers with research. The benefits of this, are you have individuals like Dr Carter, who come from a scientific background and you can bounce ideas off them.

“We look forward to continuing our relationship with Sunderland and come up with new areas of research.”

Heart transplant is the only option for patients with end-stage heart failure or irreparable coronary artery disease.

Omar, who now works in the Liver/Pancreas Surgery and Liver Transplantation Department at the Royal Free Hospital in London as a senior registrar, plans to return to active research in the future, especially in the area of transplantation.

Also collaborating on this research was Dr Guy MacGowan, Mr Stephen Clarke and Professor John Dark who all work at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital.

Omar Mownah, 36, from London

Omar Mownah began his PhD in 2013 at the University of Sunderland after a meeting with Professor David Talbot and Dr Noel Carter whilst he was a doctor in the early years of surgical training.

He says: “I was working at the time in Leeds and made a visit to the North East to discuss the possibility of joining their team.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time working under the supervision of Dr Carter and Professor Talbot. I learned a great deal from them and overall conducting research alongside them was an exciting experience. The research we undertook was a particularly novel topic and we were able to demonstrate a new technique which could be applied to hearts and offer new hope for patients requiring heart transplantation.”

Omar’s research took almost three years (full-time) and was combined with working at the Freeman Hospital in the Transplantation Unit. He also spent one year of that time working as a General Surgery Registrar in London.

Despite the intensity of the work involved, Omar’s says he always enjoyed being in Sunderland finding it a vibrant place with friendly people.

“The University was where our group met for a meeting every week,” he says. “This involved discussing our latest findings and addressing any challenges we were facing with the experiments. This was an aspect of my time in Sunderland I enjoyed a great deal.”

Omar is now currently working in the Liver/Pancreas Surgery and Liver Transplantation department at the Royal Free Hospital in London as a Senior Registrar. His long-term plan is to become a Consultant Surgeon in this field and to pursue his research interests.

Asked how will achieving his PhD at the University of Sunderland will help develop his career, he explained: “My PhD afforded me several opportunities.  I was able to meet and collaborate with many people from different disciplines who contributed to my research. I was fortunate to be able to present my work at several meetings across the UK, as well as the Germany, France and the USA.  All of these experiences have helped me in my current career as a surgeon.”

Explaining how he plans to take his research forward, he says: “I hope to resume active participation in research very soon.

“At present surgery training has taken my primary focus but I will be looking to continue research, especially in transplantation.  My other main interest is in the subject of liver and pancreas cancers.”