Coronary Heart Disease is the UK's biggest killer and with almost a million people suffering heart failure in the past year, organ donation is becoming increasingly vital. But Britain is struggling to meet this demand and is now faced with a chronic shortage of donor hearts.
Tonight Fiona Foster looks at the impact of this shortage and meets one young man waiting for a heart. Just four years ago Will Pope was a healthy and active 16 year-old, passionate about music and sport. He had just started studying for his A-levels when, after a short illness, his heart started to fail.
Doctors suspect the failure was triggered by a virus that attacked his heart causing irreparable damage. Four years on from the initial diagnosis Will's heart has deteriorated and he is now one of 140 people across Britain waiting for a life saving heart transplant. The situation is so serious that he has been placed on the urgent list.
One of the reasons why there is such a desperate shortage of hearts is that in the last three years the number of people needing a heart transplant has almost doubled.
Heart failure can affect anyone - doctors say the rise in transplant numbers is due to an increase in obesity, diseases such as type 2 diabetes and the fact that we have an ageing population.
90% of people in Britain say they would be prepared to donate their organs in the event of their death, but less than one third have signed up to the organ donor register. And even if they do go on the register their families must give final consent before their organs are released.
Fiona meets Cyril Levy who lost his wife Penny 18 months ago to a brain haemorrhage. She had signed up to the organ donor register and crucially had told her family about her wishes to donate her organs.
Cyril and his daughter, Emma, passed on her request and Penny's organs were donated to four people.
Her heart saved the life of 16 year-old Zoe.
Penny's family and Zoe have agreed to waive their anonymity to take part in the Tonight programme and they hope their stories will lead to more people agreeing to donate their organs and save lives.
There is no doubt that for many patients a heart transplant is their only chance of long-term survival. In the meantime, the medical world is trying to develop alternative ways to save patients who need new hearts.
Using stem cells to generate or grow a heart is one of the most promising fields of research, but these techniques will take years before they're ready to use on patients.
Mechanical devices that take over the heart's pumping function are being increasingly used by doctors but they're not a long-term solution - most are only effective for 5 years. But they do buy time until a donor heart can be found.
Doctors are clear we need more donor hearts to save lives and are appealing to people not just to sign up to the organ donor register, but crucially to tell their relatives their wishes. They say that informing relatives is the most important part of being a potential donor.
To join the organ donor register:
- Call 0300 123 23 23
- Text SAVE to 84118
- or visit www.organdonation.nhs.uk
And remember - let those closest to you know what your wishes are.
At Harefield Hospital, Will's health is critical and doctors must make a decision to wait for a heart or implant an official pump that will keep him alive for now. but it means he will come off the 'urgent' transplant list. And his wait for a heart will be even longer.
Waiting for a Heart is on ITV1 tonight at 7.30pm