World first study to improve atrial fibrillation treatment

Dr Michelle Munro is undertaking a world-first study into protein interactions that could provide new treatment options for people living with atrial fibrillation (AF), helping to improve their symptoms and quality of life.

Dr Michelle Munro in her labCurrently around 80,000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation which can lead to an increased risk of stroke. It can strike adults of any age, but it’s more commonly diagnosed in Kiwis aged over 65.

Over the years, the Heart Foundation has funded many research fellowships into the cause, treatment and prevention of AF. Michelle’s research focuses on a specific protein within the heart – Ryanodine receptor 2 (RyR2) – that has not previously been targeted in AF as a treatment strategy.

Her study on the protein is being supported by a three-year Heart Foundation research fellowship.

“In people with AF, the RyR2 protein is more active than normal. My research aims to investigate how interaction with a specific protein (CSQ2) alters RyR2, and how treatment could repair this function in people with AF.”

“What makes this study unique from other research is that we’ll be combining a number of different research techniques, which may help provide new insights in AF patients. We will also test how targeting this protein may reduce the burden of AF,” she says.

Michelle is currently in her third year as a post-doctoral fellow in the Physiology Department at the University of Otago, after completing her PhD in Physiology at the University of Auckland, where she studied the relationship between cardiac structure and function, including changes associated with heart failure.

She believes it’s important to study new strategies for treating people with atrial fibrillation as the condition impairs the quality of life for those living with it.

“While there have been some medical advances for treating AF, many patients don’t see a benefit with existing treatment options and still present with symptoms that impact significantly on their lives. It is vital that additional treatment strategies are investigated and developed.”

Previous research has shown that the function of the protein, RyR2, is changed in a few cardiac diseases, which can affect how well the whole heart works.

“By studying ways to restore normal RyR2 function, we hope to learn more about how and why it becomes abnormal in the first place,” Michelle says.

“If we can understand this, then we can start to develop new ways to improve function, and potentially find new treatments to help people with heart disease.”

Michelle says funding from the Heart Foundation is vital in both enabling her to carry out this research as well as helping her to develop her research career in the future.

“This funding not only provides financial support towards the materials needed for this study, but also covers my salary so that I can focus on the research.”

Read about atrial fibrillationLearn about our research milestones