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Beating the odds
one heart beat
at a time...

Genetic tests proved Margaret had what is called familial hypercholesterolaemia, or FH.

“I had no idea what was going on. I had what I now know were angina symptoms, pressure in the chest, pain in the left side, pain in the left side of the neck and breathlessness,” says Margaret.

“I put up with it for years but I was 35 and didn’t smoke and did all the right things. I didn’t fit the profile and the last thing I thought of was the heart.”

After surviving three other heart attacks at age 37, 39 and 42, Margaret underwent bypass surgery. Despite this, sadly she’s still at high risk of further heart attacks.

“You start to think that at some point, a heart attack will take me. You start to feel there is no tomorrow.”

Straight to the heart of it

It’s people like Margaret who drive Professor Robert Graham, a practising cardiologist and head of the Molecular Cardiology and Biophysics Division at the Victor Chang Institute.

Professor Graham has dedicated his research to stem cells and cardiac regeneration after witnessing the limited options available to hospital patients suffering from severe coronary heart disease.

It paid off, because in 2014 his team made a breakthrough that overturned more than a century of scientific dogma.

Prior to the discovery, it was believed that heart muscle cells lost their ability to divide and make new cells soon after birth. That limited the ability of the heart to repair itself after an injury, such as a heart attack.

But Professor Graham and his team found that heart muscle cells actually retain the ability to make new cells until at least 10 to 11 years of age. At this very important time, heart muscle cells increase by more than 40 percent, and the ability of the heart to recover after injury is remarkably enhanced.

The implications are huge – especially for people like Margaret.

Not only may it provide a significant opportunity to repair the hearts of babies born with heart defects, it may even help us to reactivate heart muscle cells damaged after a heart attack in adults.

That’s good news for the millions of Australians suffering from coronary heart disease. Professor Graham says the next step is to build on this discovery to buy patients more time with their loved ones.