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Heart Foundation 2022 research grants announced

Understanding the increased risk of heart disease faced by premature babies and their mothers, how heart valve disease progresses from mild to severe symptoms, and exploring heart failure disparities for Māori and Pacific people are just three of the projects awarded funding by the Heart Foundation today, World Heart Day.

Dr Sarah Harris performs a heart ultrasound on a newborn infant, with the baby's mother looking on.

Today’s announcement sees the Heart Foundation award $3.1 million to fund heart research and overseas training for cardiologists, taking the total awarded by the charity since its formation to more than $85 million.

Heart Foundation Medical Director Dr Gerry Devlin says, “This year’s funding includes a range of projects focused on early-stage science and prevention measures.”

“These types of projects can sometimes take longer to influence medical practice or produce tangible outcomes, but it’s vitally important we invest across the full spectrum from discovery science and prevention to treatment and cure.”

“How we diagnose and treat heart disease have changed dramatically in recent years. Advances in risk prediction and the early recognition of symptoms now allows for early diagnosis, treatment, and better management for people living with heart disease.”

“The incredible generosity of our supporters allows us to make a positive impact, enabling our researchers, innovators, doctors and nurses to keep making progress on improving heart health for New Zealanders.”

Among the list of grant recipients this year is University of Otago specialist neonatal paediatrician Dr Sarah Harris. The funding builds on earlier Heart Foundation investment in Dr Harris and her research that is examining the connection between premature birth and the risk of heart disease of mother and baby in later life.

“In New Zealand, one in thirteen babies are born prematurely. New evidence suggests premature birth increases the risk of developing heart disease, however, this is not included in current heart risk calculations,” says Sarah.

This work is of particular importance to Māori, who have higher rates of both premature birth and heart disease. All involved are keen to ensure our heart screening in New Zealand is not missing an important risk factor.

Also awarded funding in this year’s announcement is University of Otago PhD candidate and fourth-year Medical Student, Matthew Moore, who has received a Postgraduate Scholarship to research aortic valve disease.

Little is known about how quickly heart valves progress from a mild thickening to a more severe, complete hardening of the valves which can lead to heart failure and premature death.

In his research, Matthew hopes to help inform doctors about how often those with mild aortic valve disease need check-ups and develop a better understanding of other associated health risks.

This year’s funding will also see new research undertaken to further support those with heart failure, and in particular address outcomes for Māori and Pacific people.

University of Auckland Research Fellow, Dr Sandra Hanchard, the recipient of the inaugural Pacific Research Fellowship, jointly funded with Pūtahi Manawa (Healthy Hearts for Aotearoa New Zealand), aims to help whānau with heart failure enjoy a higher quality of life through having ownership over their health journey, supported by more integrated care between primary and secondary providers.

Her research stands to drive system-wide improvements to heart failure care management, improving the consistency of heart failure care in New Zealand hospitals and delivering wide-reaching benefits to priority communities.

Other funding awarded includes research support to understand how whānau modify their behaviour in a kaupapa Māori clinical exercise programme; the role of glycogen in the diabetic heart and novel treatment targets to test potential new therapies; how ultra-processed foods are defined and categorised to provide dietary information that can be matched to heart disease prevalence.

In addition to new funding, additional support has also been announced for promising ongoing work including the development of a pacemaker that mimics a healthy heart and improves the function and structure of the heart in heart failure.

Dr Devlin says the outcomes for people with heart attacks and other heart conditions have improved dramatically due to research. New and better treatments are resulting in longer and healthier lives for thousands of New Zealanders.

“Some of the projects we are funding are ambitious, but it’s by exploring new ideas and innovative ways of doing things that we will continue to deliver on our purpose to stop all people in New Zealand from dying prematurely from heart disease and enable people with heart disease to live full lives.”

“We learn more about the heart each year thanks to continued investment in research and overseas training for our New Zealand cardiologists.”

A full list of research recipients can be found here: Research grants awarded 2022