Does inflammation cause heart rhythm problems?

Otago researcher Mr Hamish Aitken-Buck will use a three-year Heart Foundation Fellowship to investigate the link between fat, inflammation, and New Zealand’s most common heart rhythm problem.

New Heart Foundation funded research will investigate the link between inflammation in heart muscle cells and New Zealand’s most common heart rhythm problem, atrial fibrillation (AF).

AF currently affects more than 60,000 New Zealanders. It is a leading cause of hospitalisation for heart issues and can lead to serious complications like stroke or heart failure.

Previous research has shown that there is increased inflammation in the heart cells of people with AF. Now University of Otago researcher Hamish Aitken-Buck has been awarded a three-year Research Fellowship from the Heart Foundation to investigate the cause of this inflammation.

“In the heart, inflammation is controlled by proteins called inflammasomes. In atrial fibrillation, inflammasome activity is increased leading to damaging effects,” Hamish explains. “But what is triggering those inflammasomes to activate in the first place?”

He is investigating the possibility that the trigger may relate to substances produced when the body breaks down fat.

“There’s a lot of evidence that obesity and inflammation are interlinked and potentially play a role in the development of  AF.”

Hamish says the Heart Foundation funding is critical for the research, which he hopes, in the long term, could result in improved treatment strategies for patients.

“It’s always important to know more about how disease processes come about,” he adds. “We’re physiologists and we work at early stages, but knowing what’s underpinning the disease presents new targets for us to go after.”

“For example, if changing levels of inflammasome activation are related to a particular substance, then knowing that helps us to identify different approaches we could take for treatment. For example, could reducing circulating amounts by dietary modification be used to reduce inflammasome activation in patients with AF?”

Hamish, who will become a ‘Dr’ in late October, says the new research is a natural continuation from his recently completed PhD which focused on fat and how it triggers heart rhythm problems.

“I’ve just well and truly moved into this area of research, and the Heart Foundation funding allows me to continue down this path,” he adds.

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