NORTH-EAST heart surgeons have been awarded £250,000 to undertake an advanced research project.

The project - which is the only one of its kind in the UK - will involve the heart surgery team at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough comparing keyhole surgery to conventional surgery for patients requiring aortic valve replacements.

Valve replacements are the second most common type of heart operation.

Funded by the National Institute of Healthcare Research, the MAVRIC trial will start in January and run for three years.

Cardiothoracic surgeon and chief investigator for the project Enoch Akowuah said: "We are very excited to be the only hospital carrying out this research project in the UK.

"Up to 4,000 patients who require aortic valve replacement each year also require a postoperative blood transfusion. If we can show the keyhole approach reduces the need for blood transfusions and decreases the amount of time patients have to spend in hospital then this could potentially save the NHS up to £1.4m a year.

"This new approach also has the potential to reduce the risk of post-operative lung injury and organ dysfunction as well as reducing the pressure on blood transfusion services."

The aortic valve enables blood to flow out of the heart and into the aorta (the main blood vessel in the body). With every heart beat the valve opens up so blood can flow out and then closes to stop any blood from flowing backwards into the heart.

Patients with narrow or leaking valves are often referred to the hospital after experiencing chest pain or shortness of breath and may require surgery to replace the faulty valve.

Cardiothoracic surgeon Andrew Owens said: "Patients who agree to take part in the trial will randomly be selected to receive either the new keyhole procedure or the more conventional treatment and we will study the clinical benefits.

"One of the key things we will need to monitor is the difference in blood loss and blood transfusion but we will also look at how quickly patients recover."

In the UK, nearly 10,000 patients a year have aortic valve surgery and more patients are expected to need this type of operation.