Get Regular Updates!



Getty Images

How a burn could change your blood

How a burn could change your blood

UWA scientists have discovered a surprising and significant link between burn injuries and heart disease.

How a burn could change your blood

If you’ve ever had a burn injury, you’re not alone. There are around 50,000 burns-related hospital admissions in Australia each year, according to the Australian and New Zealand Burn Association.

Even minor burns can lead to chronic pain, scarring and psychological stress. Sadly, children under 5 have the greatest risk of serious burn injury – usually caused by contact with hot drinks, food, fats and cooking oils.

Getting to the heart of it

Scientists are still learning about the long-term effects of burns on the body. UWA researchers recently reviewed studies showing burns could impact an unlikely organ – the heart. Now they’re searching for the cause.

The review found burn patients had a higher rate of cardiovascular diseases. Cardiovascular diseases include heart blockages, strokes and artery and aorta issues.

Even small burns covering less than 10% of the body increase the risk. But why would a burn on, say, your arm affect your heart up to 30 years later?

Tiny blood cells with a big job

Platelets might answer this question. The smallest of our blood cells, platelets control blood clotting to heal wounds. They only live for about 9 days.

Associate Professor Matthew Linden was one of the leaders of the UWA review team. He supervises PhD student Blair Johnson, who researches how platelets behave after a burn injury.

View Larger
Image|Thomas Crow
Blair at work in one of the QEII medical research labs

“If there is persistent platelet dysfunction years after an injury, it suggests there is something continuing to disrupt those platelets,” says Matt.

“Either they’re reactivated or they’re produced in a different way. We’re looking for these physiological scars.”

While burns don’t usually bleed, a crucial part of wound healing involves constricting nearby blood vessels. By closing the vessels, the body can isolate damaged areas for repair. Platelets perform several jobs in this process.

How do platelets help with burns?

Shortly after a burn, damaged blood vessels release proteins that bind nearby platelets. The platelets and blood vessels then trigger inflammation. This attracts monocytes – a type of white blood cell involved in the immune system. These monocytes attach to the platelets and use them to pass through the blood vessel wall.

This is an important step for healing the damage caused by the burn, as monocytes transform into cells called macrophages that clean up dead tissue and protect against infection.

However, the same process can cause the monocytes to move into the cell wall, where they can become foam cells, creating plaque. Plaque build-up is a common issue with heart disease.

One theory is that disruption of blood flow following a burn could cause ongoing activation of platelets and build up of plaques over a period of years.

Another possibility is scarring in the bone marrow leads to long-term changes in platelet formation. Like red and white blood cells, platelets form from progenitors in bone marrow.

View Larger
Platelets (the small purple dots) dyed and viewed under light microscopy

“At 28 days after a burn, we can measure whether there’s a persistent change in platelets. In mouse models, we can measure bone marrow and search for scarring,” says Matt.

“Platelets have a very short circulating half-life. After 9 days of recovery, the platelets shouldn’t carry memory of the injury, but they do.”

Pain could also contribute to heart disease. Burn survivors can experience long-term stress, pain and psychological trauma. Long-term chronic illness makes you vulnerable to other diseases.

“Emotional stress is physical stress. The emotional response to ongoing pain changes cortisol levels and then changes to catecholamines.” (Catecholamines are produced by our adrenal gland and prepare our bodies for fight-or-flight response.)

“These have clear and measurable effects. It’s plausible that ongoing chronic adrenergic response [platelets response to adrenaline] could activate platelets over many years.”

A bloody race against the clock

Blair’s testing this theory in mouse models and clinical trials with burns outpatients from Fiona Stanley Hospital. It’s tricky because platelets clot when they leave the body.

To prevent clotting, an anti-coagulant called sodium citrate is used. If you saw a blue vial when you had a blood test, it mixed your blood with sodium citrate. This chemical binds to calcium ions that would otherwise activate platelet clotting.

This gives Blair 30 minutes before the platelets start clotting, so he races the samples to the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research for testing.

“Once they’re out of the body, the platelets get active and start to look less like they do in the body,” says Blair.

Scientists at The University of Western Australia have discovered a surprising and significant link between burn injuries and heart disease.
Image|Thomas Crow
Platelets are small – Blair uses a flow cytometer to look at them
“Quite often, we're trying to get our reaction started 15 minutes after we take blood.”

Further research is under way to better understand the link between burns and heart disease. The findings could help doctors treat burns patients in the future – and lead to big improvements.

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?