Research could lead to improved treatment for common heart condition

Heart Foundation funded research is investigating a recently discovered nerve cell in the heart which might play in a role in atrial fibrillation, a common heart rhythm problem. It’s hoped the research could lead to better and more equitable treatment for New Zealanders who have this increasingly common condition.

Johanna Montgomery, Associate Professor at Auckland UniversityAssociate Professor Johanna Montgomery - University of Auckland

Ground-breaking research into nerve cells in human heart tissue may lead to improved treatment for patients with atrial fibrillation (AF), New Zealand’s most common heart rhythm problem.

University of Auckland Associate Professor Johanna Montgomery is undertaking a three-year project funded by the Heart Foundation, which is focussed on neurons called ganglionated plexi (GP), that sit in fat pads on the surface of the heart.

Johanna will look at the role these GP neurons play in people with AF.

“We need this knowledge to understand how they work, and how we can target cells to develop new therapies. With Heart Foundation support we can now scale our research up to do this,” Johanna says.

The team will use tissue samples donated by New Zealanders undergoing cardiac procedures. This means results from the research will be specific to the New Zealand population.

“A big part of this study is about finding out what’s going on in our population, because we’re studying tissue samples from New Zealanders,” Johanna says. “Our goal is to gain information to ensure we can improve equity in heart health, and to see whether physiological differences influence susceptibility to AF.”

For Johanna, this project is the development of an earlier piece of preliminary research on the topic which yielded promising results.

“When I first learned of the existence of these neurons, I assumed their physiology and how they functioned was known. But when I went looking into the literature, I realised no one had done the research.  That would have been about five years ago. I gained support from the Heart Foundation back in 2016 for a small project grant – that’s how it started and that’s what has helped get us off the ground.”

Johanna, a brain neuroscientist by background, has a strong personal connection with heart disease, which got her into this research. “But that’s not the only thing that keeps me doing it,” she adds. “I just find it so fascinating as well as being an important area of research.”