Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute celebrates 30 Years

From the dreams of a well-respected cardiac surgeon to a world-leader in heart research

14 February 2024

Though today the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute celebrates 30 years as a world-renowned heart research institute with over 230 staff working across 23 labs, its beginnings were far humbler.

Dedicated to pioneering cardiac surgeon Dr Victor Chang, the Institute opened its doors on 14 February 1994 in a modest red brick building on a back lane in Darlinghurst, Sydney, with just two staff.

The idea for the Institute came from the desire to support Dr Chang’s dream of establishing a research institute focused on tackling Australia’s biggest killer – heart disease. Dr Chang understood the importance of the work he was doing in the operating room but knew that through research he could save many more lives.

Whilst Dr Chang died in tragic circumstances in 1991, this would not be the end of his vision.

Building a world-class cardiac research institute

Professor Bob Graham was Chairman of the Department of Molecular Cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, a multi-million-dollar research operation with 90 staff, when he was approached with the idea of building a new world-class research institute in honour of the late Dr Chang.

But building a research institute was no mean feat, and Professor Graham understood that he would need two things to succeed: funding and the right people in his corner.

With the Institute under the auspices of the Sisters of Charity and St Vincent's Hospital, Peter Joseph, then Chair of St Vincent’s Hospital, approached well-known businessman Kerry Packer for $3 million to get the Institute started. His response was direct and blunt: "Jesus, that's a big ask isn't it? Isn't there any other bastard out there?"

Minutes later the $3 million dollars in funding was secured, adding to a further $3 million in federal funding from then Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Former PM Paul Keating, Ann Chang and Kerry Packer

Next came the people. Cardiologists Michael Feneley, Peter Macdonald, Anne Keogh and Terry Campbell soon joined as faculty, working on the ground floor of the old nurses’ home – a far cry from the 10-storey state-of-the-art facility that the Institute now calls home.

Champions, ambassadors and leaders of the Institute

Throughout its history, the Institute, bolstered by the name of such a well-respected surgeon, has attracted attention from politicians, celebrities, and royalty alike.

In February 1995, former NSW premier Neville Wran became Chair of the Institute, joined by board members that included a young Steven Lowy, who would become his successor, followed by the Institute's current Chair Matthew Grounds, who has been in the role for a decade.

When it came time to open the Institute’s temporary premises at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research on 1 November 1996, the original guest of honour, then Prime Minister John Howard, was trumped by an arguably bigger name: Diana, Princess of Wales.

Princess Diana greets Dr Siiri Iismaa in our new laboratories with Professor Bob Graham

Princess Diana attended the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute Royal Ball as the Guest of Honour on 31 October 1996, which attracted 800 guests and raised more than $1 million.

Creating a new home for the Institute

Almost a decade later, the Institute had grown in such size and status that it was necessary to secure new premises.

And so came another Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute Royal Ball and another princess - this one a little closer to home. On 4 March 2005 Australia’s own Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, now Queen Mary of Denmark, attended the fundraising ball to help raise money for a purpose-built home for the Institute.

Adding to the funding of the new home of the Institute was $20 million from renowned Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney. Significant donations were also forthcoming from the Lowy and Packer families and the Federal and NSW Governments.

And on 3 September 2008, Princess Mary returned to open the $80 million Lowy Packer Building.

Princess Mary at the opening of the Lowy Packer Building

Welcoming new leadership and expanded partnerships

In 2020, after 26 years at the helm, Professor Graham stepped down from his position as Executive Director. The reins were handed over to Professor Jason Kovacic, who as an Australian qualified cardiologist had been working in New York for over a decade, and had risen to become Professor of Medicine and Director of the Mount Sinai Cardiovascular Research Centre in New York.

He was no stranger to the Institute, having completed his PhD in 2007 under Professor Graham.

With its new Institute Director and CEO onboard, the Institute announced an official partnership with The University of Western Australia in 2022, becoming Australia’s first cardiovascular research institute with a national footprint.

Professor Livia Hool and Dr Lee Nedkoff with UWA Chancellor Amit Lee

In 2023, further collaborations were established with the St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne and south western Sydney-based Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research. These partnerships and new hubs will allow researchers and scientists to more rapidly translate their life-saving discoveries into new treatments and cures.

The expansion of the Institute also comes at a time when technological advances are transforming our understanding of heart disease.

Making research breakthroughs now and into the future

The Institute is home to some of the most cutting-edge equipment in the world enabling its scientists to develop a potential new treatment for congenital heart disease, which affects nine in 100 babies globally.

It’s also allowing researchers to deliver on the legacy of Dr Chang with heart transplant breakthroughs that are providing new hope to patients. Researchers have already expanded the available pool of donor hearts by a third by successfully transplanting hearts that have stopped beating.

The Institite's Dr Yashutosh Joshi and Professor Peter Macdonald at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney

They are now also working on a new drug extracted from spider venom that has the potential to prevent damage caused by heart attacks and increase the number of viable hearts for transplant patients.

Through all the years and all the advancements in heart research the goals of the Institute remain the same: to progress research to beat Australia’s biggest killer, improve patient care and, most importantly of all, to save lives.

-- ENDS --

For all media enquiries and interview requests, please contact:

Julia Timms
Head, Media & Communications
j.timms@victorchang.edu.au
0457 517 355

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