For several decades UWA has been working with National Heart Foundation Australia (NHFA), which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary, to save the lives of everyday Australians affected by heart disease.
In the 1980s, the late Professor Konrad Jamrozik’s anti-smoking advocacy and research into the epidemiology and prevention of vascular disease led to the adoption of smoke-free legislation and health warnings on tobacco products. In 1995, Western Australia’s first heart transplant occurred, followed nine years later by the State’s first heart-lung transplant – achievements that are inspiring today’s doctors and scientific researchers.
Despite impressions to the contrary, and a steady decline in prevalence, ischaemic heart disease (reduced blood flow to the heart) remains Australia’s number one single killer. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures from 2018 released in September this year reveal 17,500 people died from the disease. Related afflictions such as ill-defined heart disease and cardiac arrhythmia were responsible for another 5,600 deaths last year, a figure that has remained relatively steady in the past 10 years.
So as overall heart-related deaths decline, UWA researchers are delving into some of the lesser known cardiovascular diseases (CVD). Professor Livia Hool, who heads the Cardiovascular Electrophysiology Laboratory at UWA’s School of Human Sciences, says scientists are learning more about heart disease not caused by fatty deposits and blood clots blocking arteries.
One of these is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which, with the exception of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is the leading cause of death in young people (those aged 5–15 years). It’s a genetic disease that is thus far incurable and often only becomes known when a person suffers a cardiac arrest.
Dr Helena Viola, who works with Professor Hool, has been awarded various types of National Heart Foundation (NHF) funding since 2007, including a postgraduate scholarship to support her PhD, a NHF Bendat Family Scholarship, two travel grants, and a postdoctoral research fellowship. In 2018 she was the only Western Australian recipient of an NHF Future Leader Fellowship to continue her research. Dr Viola is seeking to develop a translatable, early-intervention therapy for the prevention of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and associated morbidity and mortality.
“My goal is to develop a therapy that prevents the disease, and as a result prevents cardiac death. It’s a devastating disease that can happen rapidly, suddenly and without any warning. So we need treatments for people who may carry these genetic mutations.” Dr Viola says.
The UWA/NHF partnership has been crucial to the research and early-stage drug development Dr Viola and her colleagues are conducting – but she says the partnership offers far more than mere money.
“I’ve found being funded by the Heart Foundation to be such an amazing and unique experience. As a preclinical discovery scientist, we don’t typically get a chance to interact with, first of all, patients, but secondarily people who are actually impacted by the disease – including family members who have lost loved ones to cardiovascular diseases.” Dr Viola says.
“Being funded by the Heart Foundation gives me the opportunity to speak to some of the donors and people who are touched by the disease, either directly or through the loss of family members. This makes what I do very real – it’s a wonderful link between the science and real-life impact.”
Like her colleague, Professor Hool emphasises the need to connect science with practical outcomes for the sake of supporting continued research into CVD.
Earlier this year Professor Hool initiated the formation of an alliance of Western Australian cardiovascular researchers (WACRA) to advocate for greater funding and public awareness of the impressive work occurring in this State. The NHF has become a formal partner in the alliance while UWA is an institutional member.
In a difficult funding environment, Professor Hool says the results of cardiovascular research far outweigh the costs.
“Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the country – actually worldwide – and it’s the most costly disease; it’s costing us $8.8 billion in healthcare annually,” Professor Hool explains.
“If you look at the cost-benefit ratio for all medical research areas, every dollar spent on medical research returns $3.90; but if you look at cardiovascular research, it’s the highest of all the groups in Australia – we return $8 for every $1 invested, and I think that’s an important point to make in terms of investment in research and community.”