Dr. Riaz Akhtar talks of his Wellcome ISSF Research Support Fund grant.

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Riaz Akhtar and Dr Clodagh Prendergast
Riaz Akhtar and Clodagh Prendergast

Dr. Riaz Akhtar, Reader in Biomedical Engineering, reflects on positive impact of Wellcome ISSF Research Support Fund grant in recognition of challenges presented by the pandemic.

I am a Reader in Biomedical Engineering. My research focusses on cardiovascular biomechanics. I am fortunate to be able to work with leading experts through the Liverpool Centre of Cardiovascular Science where we have a strong, collaborative relationship with the clinicians and surgeons working at the hospitals in the Liverpool City Region.

During the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a huge change in my personal circumstances which impacted on my ability to do the creative aspects of my job which require prolonged periods of deep work such as paper and grant writing. I was, however, successful in being awarded pilot funding for a project exploring the relationship between Covid-19 infection and vascular ageing. This is an important project for understanding the long-term consequences of Covid-19 and to determine why some individuals are more adversely affected following infection. What is particularly exciting for me is that the project feeds into a global study, CARTESIAN (Covid-19 Effects on ARTErial StIffness and Vascular AgeiNg) which is exploring this relationship across multiple countries and research centres across the world (52 centres in 25 Countries). I had been successful in obtaining ethical approval for this study but lacked the capacity to progress the research until receiving the Wellcome Trust ISSF award.

Riaz Akhtar

The award enabled me to employ a postdoctoral research associate to work on the project and commence the study. I was particularly pleased to be able to provide an opportunity to Dr Clodagh Prendergast who has 17 years of research experience in cardiovascular physiology at University of Liverpool. Clodagh worked with Prof. Susan Wray in her Smooth Muscle Physiology group, researching the effect of obesity on human myometrial artery function in pregnant mothers and before that, the earliest signalling and contractility changes occurring in the aorta in a mouse model of atherosclerosis.

Clodagh was at the end of her postdoctoral contract at the time due to the retirement of her supervisor and the award provided me with the funding to be able to offer her a new contract at the university. For me, this has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the award, the ability to employ a dedicated and experienced scientist in a different role. This position has enabled Clodagh to move disciplines and gain new experience in clinical, research and she has been able to support my PhD students through her extensive experience in academic research.

Clodagh has said of the experience, “It’s been a fantastic opportunity to make the move into clinical, patient-facing research and learn new relevant cardiovascular techniques, such as measuring arterial stiffness using the gold standard technique of carotid-femoral Pulse Wave Velocity. We’ve overcome several hurdles and delays to get this important study open and it’s exciting to now be underway and collecting data that we hope will in future help those suffering from Covid-19 and the debilitating effects of long Covid.”  

Clodagh and I have been successful in establishing a new collaboration through the work to date and hope to extend our approach to determine how vascular ageing is affected by other serious infections that require hospitalisation. The project will continue after the end of the award through Clodagh’s efforts. Clodagh took advantage of the opportunity to join Prosper, the postdoctoral development program being spearheaded by University of Liverpool, a valuable and horizon-widening experience that supported her to explore diverse opportunities and Clodagh has now secured new employment outside of academia in 2023 in the Health and Safety Executive and we wish her all the best.