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BBSRC-funded scientist to receive prestigious honour for work on deadly disease

5 September 2008

Professor Mandy MacLean, a BBSRC-funded scientist at the University of Glasgow, is the first woman and the first scientist working on research to understand basic mechanisms to receive the prestigious Estelle Grover Lecture Award from the American Thoracic Society for her research into the life-threatening condition, pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). PAH has no cure and is fatal. In her award lecture tonight (5 September) at the 2008 Grover Conference in Colorado (USA) Professor MacLean revealed findings that explain how PAH develops, how the chemical serotonin is involved and why recreational amphetamines can bring on this dangerous condition and how better drugs could be designed to treat what is invariably a fatal disease. This lecture represents a body of work currently funded by BBSRC (the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) along with, among others, the Medical Research Council and the British Heart Foundation.

The Estelle Grover Lecture Award is usually awarded to clinical researchers and Professor MacLean is the first scientist working on research to understand basic mechanisms ever to have had their contribution to the understanding of blood circulation around the lungs recognised in this way. Furthermore, the last time a British person received this honour was in 1996 when Professor Timothy Evans, a consultant in Thoracic Medicine at the Royal Brompton hospital, gave the lecture.

Professor MacLean said: "I am truly honoured to give the 2008 Estelle Grover lecture. This acknowledges 15 years of my research into how the neurotransmitter serotonin is involved in this terrible disease. When it occurs in adults, it is a disease more commonly observed in women - an added motivation for me. My current research is into why there is this gender effect. I truly hope my research will lead to new drugs to treat this disease."

PAH is rare but when it occurs it is very difficult to treat and always fatal. The disease occurs when blood vessels in the lungs become constricted, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood around the lungs. This prevents the blood from picking up oxygen from the air that is breathed in. The disease is progressive and invariably leads to heart failure (on the right-hand side of the heart) and death. There are very few treatments available for PAH; the effectiveness of treatments is limited due to cost and only moderate improvements in survival.

It is hoped that a greater understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms, through basic scientific research, will lead to better treatments. This is Professor MacLean’s aim. Her research examines the effects of several so-called ‘diet drugs’ that were banned because of their tendency to induce PAH in patients. Professor MacLean has used mouse models to show that the nerve chemical serotonin plays a pivotal role in the development of pulmonary hypertension and that these particular appetite suppressants lead to constriction of the blood vessels around the lungs because they activate serotonin.

Knowing that PAH can be caused by problems with this serotonin mechanism offers clues to why certain people may be pre-disposed to developing PAH. It will also serve as a warning to those taking recreational drugs such as methamphetamine (‘crystal meth’) and amphetamine (‘speed’) – known to be involved with serotonin mechanisms – as it seems these can cause PAH through the same route. Furthermore, this increased understanding of the mechanisms involved in onset of PAH means that there is greater hope that in the future we may be able to treat PAH.

Dr Alf Game, Acting Director of Science and Technology, BBSRC said: "Understanding the basic biology of healthy blood vessels allows scientists to build a solid foundation upon which to explore what happens when something goes wrong. We would like to congratulate Professor MacLean on her award and are delighted to see her take this fantastic opportunity to showcase the value of basic science for understanding a disease that has proved to be very difficult to deal with in the clinic."

Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director, BHF said: "We are delighted that Professor MacLean has received this honour. BHF funds a considerable amount of research into this deadly disease and are very pleased that the American Thoracic Society has recognised Prof MacLean's contribution to this vital field."


Notes to editors

The 2008 Grover Conference

The Grover Conference is run buy the American Thoracic Society and held on a biennial basis. It is the only international meeting in North America focused on subjects relevant to lung vascular biology and medicine; it is regarded as one of the most important international meetings in this field. The conference was initiated in 1984 and is named in honour of Professor Robert Grover, whose seminal work on pulmonary hypertension paved the way towards our current understanding of this condition.

This year’s conference runs from 3-7 August 2008 at Lost Valley Ranch, Sedelia, Colorado, USA. It has a scientific programme aimed at improving knowledge and understanding of the mechanisms by which membrane receptors, channels and transporters contribute to pulmonary vascular function in both health and disease. The conference seeks to integrate state-of-the-art bench research with clinical management and drug development strategies for pulmonary hypertension.

The Estelle Grover Award Lecture

The Estelle Grover lecture was instigated in 1992 in memory of Professor Robert Grover's wife, and is awarded to a researcher who has made an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms of pulmonary vascular disease and pulmonary hypertension. Professor MacLean was selected as the 2008 awardee on the basis of her outstanding work over many years concerning the serotonin hypothesis of pulmonary hypertension, and the critical role that serotonin seems to play in both idiopathic pulmonary hypertension and pulmonary hypertension secondary to chronic hypoxic lung disease.

About Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH)

  • PAH is a rare disease where constriction of blood vessels around the lungs causes an increase in pressure in the pulmonary artery (the large blood vessel that goes from the heart to the lungs)
  • The pressure in the pulmonary artery rises above normal levels and may become life-threatening
  • There are many unknown causes of PAH but it is known to occasionally emerge as a secondary problem to other disorders and as a side effect of some drugs
  • There are between 15 and 50 cases of PAH per million people
  • In the UK there are up to 3000 cases at any one time

Sources/further information

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence:


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

About BHF

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is the nation’s heart charity, dedicated to saving lives through pioneering research, patient care, campaigning for change and by providing vital information. But we urgently need help. We rely on donations of time and money to continue our life-saving work. Because together we can beat heart disease. For more information on the BHF, visit

About MRC

The Medical Research Council supports the best scientific research to improve human health. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health medicine and has led to pioneering discoveries in our understanding of the human body and the diseases which affect us all.

External contact

Professor Mandy MacLean, University of Glasgow

tel: 0141 330 4768


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299