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Transformational heart research gets funding - 2021 research grants announced

A pacemaker that mimics the hearts of elite athletes, a simple blood test to predict imminent heart attacks, and ‘living drugs’ to regenerate damaged heart tissue, are just three of a host of research projects awarded funding, the Heart Foundation announced today.

Scientist using microscope in lab

The Heart Foundation has awarded $4.1 million to fund heart research and overseas training for cardiologists, taking the total awarded by the charity since its formation to more than $82 million.

Heart Foundation Medical Director Dr Gerry Devlin says, "The ways in which we diagnose and treat heart disease have changed dramatically in recent years. This includes better imaging techniques, new medications and less invasive treatment, all now established in New Zealand due to successful research and overseas training fellowships supported by the Heart Foundation over the past 50 years.”

“We want to help continue these incredible advances and enable our researchers, innovators, doctors and nurses to keep making progress on improving heart health in New Zealand.”

He believes further investigation into a new pacemaker could be a game-changer for people living with heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart can’t pump blood well enough to meet the body’s needs.

The pacemaker, developed by a team at University of Auckland, has the potential to dramatically improve the function of a failing heart within days.

The Heart Foundation has granted a Senior Research Fellowship to University of Auckland researcher Dr David Crossman to use a new state-of-the-art microscope to investigate which heart muscle cells the pacemaker acts on.

“I’ll be using a new super resolution microscope, known as a STED microscope, to get a high resolution look at what’s going on,” explains David.

“This will give new insight into how this pacemaker works and hopefully aid the development of treatments to reverse the decline in heart muscle function which occurs in heart failure” he adds.

Meanwhile, the recipient of the Heart Foundation’s inaugural Foundation100 Research Fellowship, University of Otago Senior Research Fellow Dr Anna Pilbrow, will be investigating new genetic markers to identify people at risk of a heart attack. It is hoped a simple blood test could be developed to identify these people and be treated accordingly.

“My ultimate goal is to reduce the number of heart attacks and improve patient outcomes. I also want to help reduce the amount of time people spend in hospitals with heart attacks or as a result of complications afterwards,” Anna says.

University of Otago researcher Dr Xiaolin Cui will look at a new treatment for people after a heart attack which uses ‘living drugs’ to regenerate damaged heart tissue.

Other research awarded funding include an investigation into the link between inflammation and atrial fibrillation which is New Zealand’s most common heart rhythm problem; overseas training that will bring world-leading heart imaging techniques to New Zealand; and research to see if diagnostic markers for heart failure are different in the Māori population.

Gerry 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.

“It’s incredible to think that when we started funding research 50 years ago, we could never have imagined that we’d be able to achieve what we can today.”

“Through research, we are always learning more about the causes of heart disease and finding new ways to prevent, treat and even reverse some conditions,” he says.

“One day I hope we’re able to identify genetic markers to predict if our children are at risk of heart disease, and when babies are born with congenital heart defects, they can be treated without having to endure multiple surgeries.”

The 2021 awards include 6 Project Grants, 4 Overseas Training and Research Fellowships, 7 Research Fellowships, 2 Māori Cardiovascular Research Fellowships, 5 Small Project Grants and 5 Summer Studentships.

The funding has been announced to mark World Heart Day today, 29 September 2021.

Here’s a brief summary of some of the 2021 research grants;

A new kind of pacemaker that rapidly improves the function of a failing heart: Dr David Crossman, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Auckland will use a state-of-the-art microscope to investigate the benefits of a new potentially life-saving pacemaker, that mimics a natural heart rhythm that’s prominent in elite athletes but lost in people with heart disease. If successful this new pacemaker could be a game-changer for people living with heart failure, as it could restore the function of a failing heart very rapidly.

New ways to identify those most at risk of imminent heart attack: Dr Anna Pilbrow, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Otago, has been awarded the Heart Foundation’s inaugural Foundation100 Fellowship. Dr Pilbrow will investigate genetic markers to predict people at risk of a heart attack, and those likely to go on to develop heart failure. If successful, the research could pave the way for simple blood tests to identify those New Zealanders most in need of urgent preventative treatment.

New heart attack treatment that uses ‘living drugs’ to regenerate damaged heart muscle: Dr Xiaolin Cui, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery the University of Otago, has received a three-year fellowship to develop a new way to deliver ‘living drugs’ to patients to help regenerate damaged heart tissue after a heart attack. This treatment uses naturally produced nanoparticles to help repair hearts damaged by a heart attack. Dr Cui is investigating a successful way to deliver the treatment to patients.

Obesity, inflammation and abnormal heart rhythm: Mr Hamish Aitken-Buck from the University of Otago has received a three-year research fellowship to investigate the cause of inflammation in heart cells and its link to atrial fibrillation (AF), New Zealand’s most common heart rhythm condition. This study looks at the possible link between obesity and inflammation in heart cells, and whether this could be a trigger for AF.

NZ doctor joins ground-breaking research project investigating new heart valve procedure: Dr Libby Curtis, Echocardiography Registrar at Auckland District Health Board will join a team at Rennes University Hospital in France to investigate a new, minimally invasive treatment for people with damage to one of the heart’s valves, the tricuspid valve, that’s currently treated with open heart surgery or long-term medication. Following her training and research fellowship, she will bring back her skills to Hawke’s Bay Hospital to take up a post as a consultant cardiologist.

Contributors to heart disease in older Māori: Older Māori (kaumātua) are particularly vulnerable to heart disease. It is the leading cause of death and disability in Māori aged 65 years or older. However most cardiovascular research has been based on a predominantly European population. Now research led by Dr Karaitiana Taiuru, Kairangahau Māori (Health Researcher) at the University of Otago’s Christchurch Heart Institute at the University of Otago, will establish the contributors to heart disease in Māori, and look at markers to diagnose heart failure.

A full list of research recipients can be downloaded here.

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