Female scientist in a laboratory

Australian Coronavirus Research

Australian Scientists at Heart of Fight Against COVID-19

3 May 2020

Update 25 Nov 2021: Information from this article was accurate at the time of publishing and reflected the rules/advice announced by governing bodies at that time.

Scientists at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute are commencing studies into the effect of coronavirus on the heart, launching two new research projects. The Institute is also planning to start a clinical trial in collaboration with colleagues at three other Hospitals.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute Laboratory Scientists

It is widely recognised that those with major pre-existing medical conditions have a higher mortality rate should they contract COVID-19. Among these conditions, which also include diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, cancer and high blood pressure, pre-existing heart disease appears to be an important indicator of those that are more likely to have higher mortality rates if they contract COVID-19.

Renowned for being at the forefront of the most relevant research, Professor Jason Kovacic, Executive Director of the Institute says, “to date, more than 2 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 worldwide. We know that COVID-19 has significant negative effects on the heart, but at the moment we don’t properly understand how or why. It is imperative that we learn how the virus impacts the heart and ensure we treat all those diagnosed appropriately to improve outcomes.” He adds, “as always with research, our results help guide clinical practice which ultimately saves lives.”

The two studies to be undertaken at the Institute are:

1. Impact on pre-existing heart conditions

Scientists are researching how coronavirus affects the health of people with known heart conditions and if individuals with inherited heart disease have more severe COVID-19 symptoms. The team hopes to find out whether COVID-19 infection accelerates heart disease in families with inherited heart muscle and rhythm disorders, with a focus on patients with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), and/or atrial fibrillation. Specifically, they will be researching if a patient has one of the above conditions and contracts COVID-19, is onset of disease earlier, are the symptoms worse and do they progress to heart failure faster.

2. Side effects of potential COVID-19 medications

The Institute is investigating the potential side effects of drugs being used to try and treat COVID-19. Some medications being trialed can cause serious heart rhythm disturbances. One drug that has gained particular attention recently, since being promoted by President Trump is hydroxychloroquine, a drug that is used to treat lupus and malaria but has been considered for COVID-19. However, it is also possible that the treatment may have a negative impact on heart health. In particular, in some patients, it may cause acquired or drug-induced long QT syndrome, which can make it more likely that patients develop a fatal heart rhythm disorder.

A third project is also underway and is a collaborative campaign:

3. Stem cell clinical trial to reduce severity of symptoms

In collaboration with colleagues at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney and two Hospitals in Victoria, the Institute aims to conduct a clinical trial of a certain type of stem cell to dampen down the hyper-activity of the immune system that causes severe heart and lung problems in patients with COVID-19. Pending approval, patients with the virus will be injected with a particular stem cell, previously used in patients, to successfully dampen down the immune response that causes problems in other diseases. Specialists are optimistic the cells will do the same for patients with COVID-19-, which is characterised by a significant activation of the immune system.

Coronavirus Research

“Evidence based practice is essential in healthcare but even more crucial in our fight against this pandemic. We know COVID impacts the heart, and in a significant proportion of those who die from the virus they die from heart failure, rhythm problems, and other cardiac complications.

Furthermore, those with pre-existing heart conditions are at significant risk if they contract the disease. The Institute has a job to do, and we need to start now,” said Professor Kovacic.

“The spotlight is on science, and never before have the public appreciated how vital medical research is to the health of our community. And as always both government and philanthropic support will be crucial to helping the Institute achieve these projects.”

In a frank disclosure, Professor Kovacic added, “we don’t have specific funding for these projects yet, with so many people out of work and the economic downturn, donations to support our work at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute are going to inevitably diminish. For those who still have work and would like to help, I would encourage you to please be generous. We need your support and we need it in spades.”

Scientists are calling on heart patients who have tested positive to COVID-19 to contact the Institute to participate in their Australian first research.

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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