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Next generation of heart researchers starting early

The next generation of cardiologists want to impact heart health on multiple levels – in both clinical cardiology practice and the research field – and ideally at the same time.

Mathew Shuen, Devin Tonkin and Thomas Pirker

Thanks to the generous funding of the A. H. Couch Trust Heart Foundation Scholarship, three talented University of Otago students are studying towards the intercalated Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme, which combines a PhD with a medical degree. The Scholarship is designed to support promising health professionals and scientists who are carrying out heart research in New Zealand.  

These students are motivated to start building their research portfolios early in their careers. And they’re going in the deep end, with studies they hope will provide foundational evidence that may lead to novel therapies for heart attacks, heart failure and heart ageing. 

“This year the successful applicants are all enrolled in intercalated PhD and medical degrees, an infrequent occurrence. This reflects the exceptional calibre of the individuals and their potential as future research and heart health leaders in New Zealand,” says Heart Foundation Medical Director Dr Gerry Devlin. 

“In addition, we believe the research work all three investigators are undertaking will help extend our current knowledge and potentially have implications for the development of future treatments.” 

Thomas Pirker (Kāi Tahu, Te Ātiawa), University of Otago PhD and third-year medical student will be researching the biological activity of a novel inflammatory protein called suPAR (soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor) at the Christchurch Heart Institute. 

High suPAR levels in heart disease patients are often associated with poorer outcomes, and there is limited knowledge to date on whether suPAR has any biological activity on the heart. Thomas will research suPAR’s biological actions on the heart wall (myocardium) by studying cellular pathways activated by suPAR and its role in energy metabolism which is important for heartbeat regulation during heart attack recovery. 

Knowledge obtained from this research could potentially unlock a new treatment pathway for heart attacks and improve survival and recovery. 

Thomas was recently awarded the prestigious Young Investigator’s Award for 2023 from the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand (CSANZ).  

Devin Tonkin, University of Otago PhD and third-year medical student, will be investigating the potential of a new therapy called a “microRNA cocktail” to restore normal levels of microRNA in a failing heart. 

Dysregulation of microRNA molecules in chronic heart failure is thought to increase the death of heart cells, reduce the formation of new blood vessels and stiffen the heart walls. By developing a three-dimensional model of heart tissue, Devin will be able to mimic chronic heart failure and evaluate the effects of the microRNA cocktail treatment. 

Evidence from this study could aid development of a novel microRNA therapy for patients that prevents cardiovascular diseases from progressing to chronic heart failure. 

Mathew Shuen (Ngāti Ranginui), University of Otago PhD and third-year medical student will be unravelling the cellular biology of the ageing heart. His research will examine how levels of nuclear pore complex proteins in heart muscle cells change with patient ageing. 

Investigating the cellular causes of heart ageing could lead to new interventions that directly target the underlying mechanisms and inform the prevention and treatment of age-related heart diseases. 

The Couch Trust is excited at the calibre of the three awardees for 2023.  

“Their early career dedication and direction is remarkable, and we are confident they will contribute to cardiology research and leadership in the future,” say the trustees.  

This honours the purpose of the Trust, which was established in 1972 through the generosity of the late Arthur Herbert Couch after he survived a serious heart attack.