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Inaugural Foundation100 Fellowship

Senior Research Fellow Dr Anna Pilbrow has been awarded the Heart Foundation’s inaugural Foundation100 Fellowship. Her two-year research project will investigate the use of DNA and genetics to identify people at risk of heart attacks and heart failure.

Dr Anna Pilbrow

Identifying people at imminent risk of a heart attack is the focus of new research being undertaken by Christchurch Heart Institute Senior Research Fellow Dr Anna Pilbrow, recipient of the Heart Foundation’s inaugural Foundation100 Fellowship.

If successful, the research could pave the way for simple blood tests to identify those New Zealanders most in need of urgent preventative treatment.

It will also seek to establish genetic markers that identify those people most likely to develop heart failure after a heart attack.

“Findings from this research have the potential to reduce the number and duration of hospital admissions for heart attacks and acute heart failure,” Anna says.

Each year around 65,000 New Zealanders are admitted to hospital with a suspected heart attack, but only 10-15% of those are diagnosed as having a full-blown heart attack.

Research has two aims

The first aim of Anna’s two-year research fellowship is to find markers that may circulate in the blood of patients who are at risk of ischaemia. Once validated, a blood test could then be used to identify these people quickly and easily.

The research could prove particularly beneficial for people in rural areas. 

“It’s a real problem because we know people in some of our regional areas and Māori and Pasifika have less access to healthcare and don’t always get rapid access to follow-up cardiac testing and treatment,” Anna says.

If a blood test is developed, it could be used in smaller regional hospitals and potentially even GP clinics to get faster treatment for those who need it most.

The second aim of Anna’s research fellowship is to see if DNA can be used to predict people who might develop heart failure after a heart attack.

Heart failure is a chronic condition which occurs when the heart can’t pump blood properly around the body. It affects around 72,000 New Zealanders and has a high mortality and hospitalisation rate.

“Death as a result of a heart attack has declined considerably in New Zealand since the late 1960s, but what that means is that more people are living with a damaged heart for longer, so there’s more time for complications to arise,” Anna says. “A common complication is heart failure which can be quite debilitating. Currently, it’s hard to predict who will go on to develop heart failure and who won’t.”

Anna and her collaborators will analyse samples from 50,000 patients to see if they can identify common genetic variations which could be used in conjunction with other predictors to identify high-risk patients.

She hopes the Heart Foundation funding can be used to make a real impact on the lives of those living with heart disease.

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

Personal meaning

Anna tramping in the Murchison Mountains, Fiordland

For Anna, it’s a goal with personal as well as professional meaning.

“When I was a teenager, three of my grandparents died of heart disease,” she says. “This had quite an impact on me and sparked my interest in wanting to improve outcomes for heart patients and their whānau.”

She also recognises the benefit that the Foundation100 Fellowship will have for her career, and heart health research more generally.

“It’s a huge honour and I couldn’t be more thrilled to receive the Foundation100 Fellowship,” she says. “I hope it will be a springboard for the use of DNA and genetics in managing heart disease in New Zealand. Fellowships like this one are rare and extremely valuable as they give space for researchers like me to focus on big research questions and make real progress. It will also provide a greater opportunity for me to support and mentor colleagues who are at an early stage of their research career.”

The research work is jointly funded by the University of Otago and the Health Research Council.