Professor Kovacic smiling at the camera in the Institute's boardroom

Prof Jason Kovacic reflects on Institute's 30 Year Anniversary

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute celebrates 30 Years as the Home of Heart Research

CEO and Institute Director Professor Kovacic shares memories and future plans for the Institute

10 April 2024

Professor Jason Kovacic may be four years into his role as CEO and Institute Director, but his relationship with the Institute stretches back over 20 years.

Jason Kovacic graduating with a PhD with his supervisor Professor Bob Graham

From his early days as a PhD student under the guidance of Professor Bob Graham, to his current role as the head of one of the world’s most well-respected cardiovascular research institutes, we talk to Professor Kovacic about his memories of the Institute throughout its 30 year history and his plans for the future.

When did your relationship with the Institute first begin?

It was 2002 and I was in the last couple of years of my training as a cardiologist and I had decided that I wanted to do a PhD. So I spoke to the Institute’s Executive Director Professor Bob Graham and Professor Richard Harvey and organised to do a PhD at the Institute. I started part-time in 2003, went full-time in 2004 and finished in 2007. At that time, the Institute occupied just one level of the Garvan Institute’s building and the Lowy Packer Building that we now occupy was just a big asphalt car park.

What attracted you to the Institute?

Jason Kovacic meeting then Princess Mary at the Institute as a PhD student

The Institute was almost a decade old in 2003 when I started my PhD, and it had already established itself as a premier research facility. Notable people like Princess Diana were showing support and during my PhD then Princess Mary came to visit as well.

The Institute was also well connected with St Vincent's, which is where I completed my training as a cardiologist. I was keen to stay in the St Vincent's loop, so it all aligned nicely.

What drew you back to the Institute to take on your current role of CEO and Institute Director?

When I was approached about the role my family and I were living in New York. I was full Faculty at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and was very happy and comfortable there. At the time we didn’t think we would ever come back to Australia. We had US citizenship and we were really enjoying New York. But then Professor Graham wanted to step down from the Director role, and so the Institute came looking for his successor.

It was the right decision for my family and I from many perspectives. We had kids that we wanted to raise in Australia and by that stage I'd been at Mount Sinai for 11 years, so it was time to move on. It’s a great opportunity and I'm really glad that I took on this role.

How have you found your first four years at the helm of the Institute?

The whole ride has been great! It’s been challenging in all the right ways. With help from everyone from the Board of Directors, our Deputy CEO Susannah Rooney, and all our staff and scientists, we’ve refreshed and reframed the Institutes’ work over the last few years. We have broadened our scope to include more of an emphasis on translational research – which means ‘translating’ basic science discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic where we can have real impact on the heart health of all Australians.

Prof Jason Kovacic with a patient

This new direction has been supported by new faculty members including Professor Nigel Turner in Sydney, Dr Lee Nedkoff at our hub at the University of Western Australia (UWA), along with clinician scientists A/Prof Mayooran Namasivayam, Dr Nikki Bart and Dr Kavitha Muthiah who have helped develop the clinical and translational research aspects of the Institute.

We are also focusing on further expanding the national footprint of the Institute. When I started in this role, we only had Professor Livia Hool at UWA as the only non-Darlinghurst Faculty of the Institute. We had to decide whether to keep Prof Hool on her own in WA as a single Faculty member, or to further evolve the Institute nationally. I felt that because we are one of the leading research institutes in the country, we were primed to do the latter. After solidifying our partnership with UWA and adding Dr. Lee Nedkoff as now a second Faculty member there, we since have gone on to establish further partnerships with the St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne and also south western Sydney-based Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research. I feel this has been a great evolution for not just the Institute, but for cardiovascular research and for the country.

What do you think has taken the Institute from its humble beginnings in 1994 to where we are now 30 years later?

Many people have been involved in the Institute’s success. Obviously our founding Executive Director Professor Graham had a huge hand in getting the Institute to this point. But he was supported by so many amazing people along the way, including the Board Chairman’s - Neville Wran, Stephen Lowy, and Matthew Grounds, the Board members, clinicians at St Vincent’s hospital, Victor Chang’s legacy and Victor's family, the philanthropic donors, and of course our staff. Having the involvement and engagement of great people from all facets, be it scientists or operations staff, has been the key to our growth.

What are your plans for the future of the Institute?

I want to see us play a bigger role on the international stage. While we want to show the benefits of our research on the cardiovascular health of Australians, I also want us to be considering how we can impact cardiovascular health globally - because with the possible exception of the specific cardiovascular health of Indigenous Australians, there's almost no other breakthrough I can think of in cardiovascular research that wouldn’t be able to be translated to clinics around the world. Expanding our footprint gives us that platform to be thinking at a more global level, and we can already see that impact happening.

Professor Chris Hayward with the BiVACOR total artificial heart

There’s the BiVACOR total artificial heart work, which is an Australian innovation that the Institute's Professor Chris Hayward has been closely involved with. It looks like implants of this revolutionary device will be starting here at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney in 2024 through work that was done at the Institute. So that's a great example of us working locally, but having a global impact.

There’s also the work we are doing in collaboration with the University of Queensland where we are developing a drug derived from the Hi1a protein in funnel web spider venom that could revolutionise heart transplants and save more lives after a heart attack – which again could have a global impact.

Coming back to a more local level, the cardiovascular health of Indigenous Australians is another key area that we are increasingly engaged with. Sadly, Indigenous Australians suffer a disproportionately high burden of cardiovascular disease as compared to non-Indigenous Australians, and we all need to do everything we can to fix this situation. I look forward to further developing this work over the coming years.

We’re also focusing on raising awareness of heart health issues within the community, including providing advice on how people can manage potential risk factors through lifestyle changes such as healthy diet, exercise and the like. We want to share the knowledge we have about improving heart health so it can be immediately beneficial to everybody.

SCAD patient Jen O'Neill, Prof Kovacic and Melissa Doyle raising awareness about women's heart disease

What do you see as the future of cardiovascular health – both in research and also the way we diagnose, treat and prevent cardiovascular diseases?

With the pace of developments and therapies moving rapidly, I think we will see a shift from waiting for catastrophes to happen - like heart attack and stroke - to becoming more proactive in screening, managing risk factors, and early intervention. The holy grail would be to prevent the risk factors – such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes - from happening in the first place. That’s going to take decades, but that's where we should be aiming to get to.

Another thing that I see as being likely to happen is the integration of genetics with clinical practice. It’s getting there now in precision medicine and genetics for some diseases, like cancers, but it’s not there yet for cardiovascular diseases. I think that's going to come in the years and decades ahead. When that happens we could look at a person’s whole genome and say, well this person has a low risk for high blood pressure, but a high risk for developing diabetes etc. That would then enable people to take proactive steps and/or have more aggressive screening to mitigate those risks to their heart health. That will be exciting when we get to that point.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years