Stories from the heart
In 2006, cardiovascular disease claimed the lives of 17 million people around the world, including 50,000 in Australia. This tragic loss of life requires an ongoing funding commitment from governments and the private sector to rein in the statistics.
In the 10 minutes it takes to read this story, more than 300 people in the world will die from heart disease. Most of the blame for this can be sheeted home to four factors: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and smoking.
The evidence for a major re-think of western lifestyles is compelling. But while education is critical to addressing this global killer, medical advances are making some impressive inroads.
At the University of Adelaide alone, 37 researchers are collaborating with the Cardiovascular Research Centre (CRC) based at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
CRC's two most senior researchers--Professor Prash Sanders and Professor Stephen Worthley--have together secured more than $1 million worth of funds from the National Heart Foundation (NHF), the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and other medical groups since 2005.
Professor Sanders occupies the Knapman-NHF Chair of Cardiology Research in the Discipline of Medicine at the University of Adelaide. He is also Director of the Royal Adelaide Hospital's Cardiac Electrophysiology Service, opened last year, and CRC Director.
The world-renowned cardiac specialist returned to Adelaide in 2005 after an extensive period overseas. His experience in France, working with the world pioneers in atrial fibrillation ablation, is now being put to good use in Adelaide.
Up to 300 patients will benefit every year at the Royal Adelaide Hospital from this revolutionary new heart treatment for atrial fibrillation--the world's most common heart rhythm disease.
"This procedure can treat the condition with much less distress to the sufferer," Professor Sanders said. "It requires no cutting or stitching and leaves significantly fewer scars than open heart procedures."
In 2006 professors Sanders and Worthley were awarded a total of $1.17 million in NHMRC project grants and in 2007, a $101,125 Development Grant by the NHMRC. The National Heart Foundation awarded the CRC $112,800 in 2006 and $122,000 in 2007, underpinning the importance of the researchers' work.
In November 2006 Dr Bobby John, a PhD student of Professor Sanders, won a major international award for his research into rheumatic heart disease, which affects large numbers of the Aboriginal population each year.
Dr John took out the Young Investigators Award at the Asia-Pacific Atrial Fibrillation Symposium in Tokyo, attended by 800 electrophysiologists from around the world.
Rheumatic heart disease affects more than 15 million people on a global scale, including 2.4 million children. Dr John and Professor Sanders are part of a team working on new techniques to cure atrial fibrillation.
"Until 1998 we did not think we could cure such a chaotic heart rhythm disturbance but we are now making headway," Professor Sanders said.
Professor Stephen Worthley holds the Helpman Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Adelaide. He is also the Director of Cardiac Intervention and Magnetic Resonance Imaging at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and a CRC Director.
In February this year Professor Worthley saved the life of a 70-year-old Adelaide woman after performing the world's first operation to repair a rupture of the blood vessels in the heart, using keyhole surgery.
Professor Worthley used a ground-breaking combination of medical imaging, catheters and a butterfly-shaped plug to fix the tear which normally leads to fatal blood loss within seconds.
He is also part of a team working on world-first stem cell research to give heart sufferers a new treatment option using cells harvested from their own bone marrow. This research is looking at ways of treating patients with specially selected adult stem cells which may regenerate weakened and damaged heart muscle.
Cardiologist Dr Peter Psaltis, a University of Adelaide alumni medallist in 1999, is working alongside Professor Worthley and colleagues from the Hanson Institute to help regenerate damaged heart tissue. Dr Psaltis is supported by a joint NHF and NHMRC scholarship.
The stem cell research, which is funded by the NHF, gives doctors another treatment option for heart patients who are not responding to medication, surgery and pacemakers.
Dr Matthew Worthley, a senior lecturer at the University, has also added to his family's medical reputation by being the first and only Australian to be nominated for a Thomas J Linnemeier Young Investigator Award in 2006. The award is one of the most prestigious interventional cardiovascular prizes in the world.
More than 15,000 people were reviewed for the 2006 award, which was presented at the Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics (TCT) symposium in Washington D.C. last October.
Dr Worthley, a younger brother of Stephen, was nominated for his research into mechanisms to help the heart arteries relax. "If arteries are in a more relaxed state, they are less likely to harden and lead to heart attacks in the future,"
The 36-year-old cardiologist works in collaboration with his brother in several research projects, particularly regarding vascular function and MRI imaging.
Both have an impressive international reputation, with research stints in Calgary, Canada and New York between them, before returning to Adelaide and their alma mater, to further their careers.
The arrival of a $2.9 million MRI system at the Royal Adelaide Hospital this winter is expected to facilitate their imaging and interventional research.
Dr Scott Willoughby from the School of Molecular and Biomedical Sciences has also enjoyed international recognition in the past year. In September 2006 he won the Young Investigators' Award in Thrombosis at the World Congress of Cardiology meeting in Barcelona, held every four years--the equivalent of the "heart Olympics".
His prize-winning presentation was one of nearly 11,000 submissions from 94 countries.
Dr Willoughby's research showed that a common heart drug could reduce platelet dysfunction, especially in high-risk heart patients.
At the same congress, Dr Martin Stiles, who is undertaking his PhD with Professor Sanders, won an award in heart rhythm disorders research for his work into the effects of fish oils and omega-3 levels.
"All these University of Adelaide and CRC researchers are proving their worth on the cardiovascular research and clinical stage," Professor Sanders said.
"We have an enormous opportunity to make a difference in cardiovascular research, both nationally and overseas. What is needed for us to succeed is ongoing financial support from state and federal governments, as well as the corporate and industry sectors."■
STORY CANDY GIBSON