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Funding transformative heart research – new research grants announced

A phone-sized defibrillator for community first responders, investigating whether AI can prevent a catastrophic heart event, and understanding the impact of ultra-processed food on heart health are just three of the many research projects awarded funding by the Heart Foundation today.

This year the Heart Foundation has awarded $3.7 million to fund heart research and overseas training for cardiologists, taking the total awarded since 1968 to more than $90 million. 

Heart Foundation Medical Director Dr Gerry Devlin says, "Rapid growth in new techniques, technology and treatments are dramatically changing how we diagnose and manage heart disease. Over the past 55 years, the successful research projects and overseas training fellowships funded by the Heart Foundation have helped transform our understanding of heart disease and accelerate progress in developing new treatments. 

"We're excited to support these vital advances and enable our researchers and health professionals to continue making progress on improving the heart health of all New Zealanders. 

"This year we're funding a diverse range of bench-to-bedside research, including clinical research that will influence medical practice and have a direct impact on people's lives." 

One research project that could have a real impact in the near future is exploring the life-saving potential of an ultra-portable defibrillator the size of a cell phone that can be carried by community responders. These trained volunteers are alerted by smartphone to assist when a cardiac arrest happens nearby. 

Around 1,700 New Zealanders die from out-of-hospital cardiac arrest each year and CPR and early defibrillation are proven to improve survival.  

The Heart Foundation is funding Dr Verity Todd from Auckland University of Technology to contribute to research led by Hato Hone St John and Ambulance Victoria exploring whether this ultra-portable defibrillator can save lives in real-world settings. 

"Early defibrillation significantly improves survival," says Verity. "What we want to see is these devices being available and used by more people in the community. The impact they could make is huge, especially as anyone can use them – we want to see neighbours saving each other's lives." 

Also in this year's announcement, the prestigious Foundation100 Fellowship has been awarded to Waikato Hospital cardiothoracic surgeon and researcher Mr Nishith Patel. He aims to better understand the life-threatening condition aortic dissection, which is caused by a tear in the lining of the aorta carrying blood from the heart to the rest of the body. 

Aortic dissection is a medical emergency and is believed to be more common in New Zealand than other countries. Nishith's studies will identify how common it is, if there's a link with high blood pressure, and how to improve the survival and care of people who are at greatest risk. 

He'll be using artificial intelligence (AI) for early detection, by training software to detect features not visible to the human eye on CT scans that suggest which people are at risk of aortic dissection and may need preventative surgery. 

Three researchers have been awarded funding for projects that will investigate the impact of food on heart health and will dig deeper into the impact of ultra-processed foods and changing diets. 

"There have been global studies strongly linking ultra-processed foods to high blood pressure and heart disease, but there has been little research done here which specifically relates to our population," says Gerry.  

The rate of progress made in reducing the prevalence of heart disease over the past 50 years in New Zealand appears to be slowing, as the decline in heart disease has plateaued for the first time in decades. Dr Kathryn Bradbury will investigate whether new trends such as low-carb high-fat diets are contributing to higher blood fats that could explain the plateau. 

Dr Kelly Garton will investigate if ultra-processed foods, which are often energy-dense and high in salt, fats and sugars, are to blame for heart disease and will explore what the levers for policy change are. 

With a focus on the younger generation, Dr Kathryn Beck has received funding to investigate ultra-processed food consumption in 600 school children in Auckland and Waikato, and the potential contribution to poor heart health. 

Other research awarded funding will investigate if the ‘love hormone' oxytocin leads to heart failure after a heart attack; a new tissue culture system that allows researchers to study beating human heart samples in the laboratory; and overseas training for the next generation of cardiologists who'll gain early exposure to leading-edge techniques that will benefit New Zealanders. 

This year's funding also supports a 10-year follow-up study into long-term changes in Pasifika heart health in New Zealand and new research into Peoples of Fiji living in New Zealand that will investigate a potential genetic link with premature heart disease. 

Dr Devlin says research has dramatically improved the outcomes for people experiencing heart attacks or living with heart conditions. "Continued investment in research and overseas training for New Zealand cardiologists will help improve the survival and care for thousands of Kiwis." 

"We're funding transformative research which we hope will improve our understanding and management of many heart conditions. Combining heart research with rapid growth in new technologies can accelerate progress in saving and improving lives." 

The 2023 awards include 10 Project Grants, 4 Overseas Training and Research Fellowships, 1 Senior Fellowship, 4 Research Fellowships, 1 Foundation100 Fellowship, 1 Postgraduate Scholarship, 1 Nurse Practitioner Training Fellowship, 4 Small Project Grants, 3 Grants-in-aid and 7 Summer Studentships. 

A full list of the 36 research recipients can be found here: Research grants awarded 2023

Read our 2023 research stories