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Otago scientists secure almost $1.6 million for heart research

Clocktower.

Alison Heather image
Professor Alison Heather

University of Otago researcher Professor Alison Heather has secured funding from the Heart Foundation to continue her investigations into preventing atherosclerosis, the leading cause of deaths from heart disease.

Professor Heather, from the Department of Physiology, is one of a large number of Otago scientists successful in receiving just under $1.6 million from the Heart Foundation for heart research.

Professor Heather says she is grateful to receive $194,385, which will enable her and her research team to evaluate the therapeutic potential of a protein they have identified, which may prevent atherosclerosis developing.

The disease starts with the build-up of fat-filled lesions in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. As it progresses, the lesions grow larger and can impede blood flow through the arteries so parts of the heart do not get enough nutrients and oxygen, which can lead to heart failure, she explains.

Professor Heather and her research team have identified a protein, called CaMKII, which they believe is an important player in forming these lesions in the coronary arteries. When they inhibit the activity of CaMKII, it effectively slows down the disease.

“This project will be the starting point for evaluating the therapeutic potential of CaMKII inhibition in this disease.”

The other successful researchers are:
Kathryn Hally, Departments of Surgery & Anaesthesia,
University of Otago, Wellington

Characterising inflammation in acute myocardial infarction
$255,000 (research fellowship)

Heart attacks are a leading cause of death and disability in New Zealand and, for those that survive, life after a heart attack is far from free of health complications. The heart starts to repair soon after a heart attack but in some patients the quality of this repair process is compromised. Normal inflammation is beneficial for proper repair, but excessive inflammation contributes to reduced quality of repair. Ms Hally and her research team aim to establish a method to identify patients with excessive inflammation by tracking the level of inflammation in their blood during hospitalisation after a heart attack. They aim to determine how much this excessive inflammation contributes to reduced quality of repair and to identify patients who are at-risk of worse repair after their heart attack. These patients could be given anti-inflammatory treatments to promote good repair and reduce their likelihood of experiencing long-term harmful effects due to their heart attack.

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Dr Michelle Munro, Department of Physiology
Restoration of calcium balance by calsequestrin in atrial fibrillation
$241,143 (research fellowship)
$14,500 (small project grant)

Dr Munro aims to investigate a new target for the treatment of atrial fibrillation (AF), a serious heart condition in which there is abnormal rhythm in the atria of the heart, posing a serious risk of stroke. Patients with AF have a higher mortality rate and reduced quality of life. Currently, many AF patients show limited improvement with current treatment options. The researchers predict that a protein will modify the activity of a receptor in the heart of patients with AF, which will prevent the abnormal rhythm.

Dr Rory Miller, Dunedin School of Medicine
Accelerated chest pain pathways in rural hospitals and primary care
$177,000 (project grant)

Accelerated Chest Pain Pathways have been introduced in all emergency departments in urban New Zealand. These allow patients who are not having a "heart attack" to be safely discharged from the emergency department sooner. Dr Miller’s team has adapted an accelerated chest pain pathway for rural use and conducted a pilot study in patients with possible "heart attack" who attended general practices in rural New Zealand communities. Over 50 per cent of patients were identified as low risk for having a "heart attack" and could be safely managed at the practice without the need to be transported a considerable distance to hospital. The proposed study will expand on the pilot, to include rural hospitals and additional general practices, to confirm the safety of this pathway.

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Dr Carol Bussey, Department of Physiology
Why can’t the diabetic heart rest?
$164,998 (research fellowship)
$127,183 (project grant)

Type 2 diabetes blunts the normal circadian heart rhythm, contributing to significant cardiovascular complications including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and mortality.

Using techniques established in Dr Bussey’s laboratory, she aims to determine the mechanisms behind impaired circadian rhythm in the diabetic heart.

Establishing the mechanisms responsible for this impairment will inform research into new therapeutic approaches as well as current clinical practice.

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Dr Regis Lamberts, Department of Physiology (HeartOtago)
Identification of epicardial fat factors that increase fibrillation of the heart
$149,650 (project grant)

Obesity is a highly prevalent risk factor for atrial fibrillation (AF).

Dr Lamberts and his research team recently found that fat surrounding the human heart can directly increase the development of spontaneous beats, a measure of AF, in heart muscles.

They aim to investigate why this occurs.

Understanding the interaction between the heart and the fat surrounding it will impact on treatment strategies for the growing number of obese patients with AF.

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Dr Prisca Mbikou, Department of Medicine
University of Otago, Christchurch

Characterising the role and therapeutic potential of novel peptide DWORF in heart disease
$111,892 (project grant)

Heart disease is a leading cause of death and disability in New Zealand and new treatment options are needed. A recent breakthrough in genetic research concerning so-called non-protein-coding RNA has led to the discovery of a new class of proteins, including DWORF. This small protein is found almost exclusively in the heart and is believed to cause increased contraction of the heart muscle by regulating intracellular calcium levels. Dr Mbikou and her team will investigate this unique protein to further understand how it works, which may help in the development of new treatments for heart disease.

Other successful researchers who received small project grants are: Dr Sarah Appleby, University of Otago, Christchurch ($14,989), Dr Janice Chew-Harris, University of Otago, Christchurch ($15,000), Dr Sean Coffey, Dunedin School of Medicine ($14,919), Professor Dirk De Ridder, Dunedin School of Medicine ($14,997), Dr Cassidy Moeke, Department of Biochemistry ($14,715).

Ryan Sixtus, from the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, University of Otago, Wellington, received a postgraduate scholarship worth $52,000 for his research into premature birth and its relationship to later-life cardiovascular disease.

For further information, contact:

Professor Alison Heather
Department of Physiology
Tel 03 479 7399
Email Alison.heather@otago.ac.nz

Liane Topham-Kindley
Senior Communications Adviser
Tel 03 479 9065
Mob 021 279 9065
Email liane.topham-kindley@otago.ac.nz

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