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The Impact of Giving (part 2): Supporting advances in preventing sudden death

Published: 22 February 2021

Visit by donors James and Margaret Lancaster to meet Professor Elijah Behr and his research group. Back row L-R: Dr Xinkai Wang, Sabrina Smith, Dr Chiara Scrocco, Dr Yanushi Wijeyeratne, Dr Chris Miles. Front row: L-R: Prof Elijah Behr, Prof Jenny Higham, Margaret Lancaster, James Lancaster. Visit by donors James and Margaret Lancaster to meet Professor Elijah Behr and his research group. Back row L-R: Dr Xinkai Wang, Sabrina Smith, Dr Chiara Scrocco, Dr Yanushi Wijeyeratne, Dr Chris Miles. Front row: L-R: Prof Elijah Behr, Prof Jenny Higham, Margaret Lancaster, James Lancaster.

This new series of articles will profile the stories behind major donations received by the University and their impact on research and education. This second edition focuses on work funded by James and Margaret Lancaster.

Sudden death due to cardiac arrest is a hidden killer, with more than twelve adults under the age of 35 dying every week, often without warning.

This is something that James and Margaret Lancaster know only too well, after their youngest son Robert passed away in 2007 while the family were on a skiing holiday. He suffered a cardiac arrest on the slopes, seemingly without explanation.

One year later James and Margaret found out that Robert had a condition called Brugada syndrome – a rare but serious genetic fault that affects the way electrical signals pass through the heart.

Since the diagnosis, they have been motivated to find out more about Brugada syndrome, supporting research into the condition and uncovering other causes of sudden cardiac arrest.

Choosing to invest in people

“Robert was 21. He had just started work and was very popular amongst his colleagues,” says James. “He died when he was in his first job. We know how bright he was. He’d have had the potential to do a lot more.”

As a successful businessman, James has always been clued into unlocking the potential of others. Together with Margaret, when deciding how to fund research, they took the decision to put their money towards developing the academic leaders of the future.

“I don’t wish to have our names put on pieces of hospital equipment,” he says. “I’ve always been a people-based investor. So we talked about being a people-based investor in clinical research.”

After undergoing tests with Professor Elijah Behr to find out whether either of them were susceptible to heart conditions, it was then that they decided they wanted to invest in his research.

At the time, Professor Behr was Dr Behr, having recently finished his training in clinical electrophysiology at St George’s Hospital. Since then, he has gone on to have considerable impact in the field, revolutionising the diagnosis of sudden deaths and becoming a professor in 2018.

“Our aim was for Dr Behr to become Professor Behr,” says James. “And when he did, it was one of the proudest moments of our lives and we went along to see him give his inaugural lecture.”

For the Lancasters, that moment was a sign that their funding was making progress and proved to them that by investing in people from their early careers onwards, they could continue to support developments in the research.

I think the analogy is when you put your pound in the shaking tin, you have no idea where it goes, but when you put your pound in this tin, you can see exactly where it’s going. You can see the students, what work they’ve done and what progress they’ve made.

How funding makes a difference

“Donations are very important because they provide a source of funding and support that otherwise can be a real struggle to obtain,” says Professor Behr.

Particularly at the moment, during the pandemic, where some opportunities have been stopped or blocked, reducing potential income. “Even small donations can permit small projects to happen and larger donations can employ staff training and create academics for the future,” he adds.

The funding from the Lancasters has so far been critical to Professor Behr’s team’s work on sudden death, funding the staff who are responsible for keeping the projects going – including current support for a research coordinator and computer scientist.

Without the funding the research would stop, says Professor Behr. For example, without the work of computer scientist, Xinkai Wang, the team would be working without software he developed, essential for manipulating digital data from electrocardiograms.

Each member of the team is critical to bringing the day closer when we are able to accurately identify and diagnose all those at risk of sudden death.

As well as supporting Professor Behr and technical staff, the Lancasters’ donations have also enabled research fellows to undertake PhDs and produce new research – progressing knowledge in the field even further.

Most recently, Dr Chris Miles has just completed his own PhD in cardiology and sudden death.

Funding the future

“When I joined St George’s in 2016, I had been working as a registrar at the Royal Brompton Hospital and was looking for research opportunities,” says Dr Miles.

“After approaching Dr Behr, the Lancasters very kindly funded the first couple of years of my salary at St George’s, which then allowed me to apply for a British Heart Foundation research fellowship in 2018.”

After successfully applying for the highly competitive research fellowship, Dr Miles has gone on to publish research in renowned journals and has been awarded a National Institute for Health Research academic clinical lectureship at the University. He is now working his way towards becoming a cardiology consultant, as well as leading modules for students at the University, teaching the next generation of clinicians.

He adds that this may not have been possible without the backing from James and Margaret.

“Their support has been enormously beneficial to my personal development. I’ve worked with fantastic colleagues and leaders in the international arena and been very fortunate with my research outputs.

“All of us in the team are very appreciative of the ongoing support and hope they can see the effects their input has had on our careers and on the research as a whole.”

On the opportunity they’ve had to give to research at the University, Margaret stresses the value of being able to see where they’ve made an impact.

“I think the analogy is when you put your pound in the shaking tin, you have no idea where it goes,” she says. “But when you put your pound in this tin, you can see exactly where it’s going. You can see the students, what work they’ve done and what progress they’ve made.”

James and Margaret add that seeing the progress of young clinical academics like Dr Miles creates “the most tremendous feeling”, seeing the potential they’ve invested in fully realised.

Thanks to the donations from the Lancasters, Professor Behr’s group are continuing to develop the research field even further. And by investing in careers, the benefits of their funding will continue down the line, as each member of the team follows their own path through research, passing on knowledge and new discoveries for years to come.

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