2022 MRFF Funding Success for the Institute

MRFF wins all-around for cardiovascular research at the Institute

21 September 2022

Researchers at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute have received grants totaling almost $4 million that will allow scientists to develop a new test that can screen hundreds of genetic mutations and drive a project to help identify people at greatest risk of alcohol-induced heart disease.

Funding Success to help develop new genetic tests

Professor Jamie Vandenberg has been awarded close to $3 million from the MRFF Genomics Health Futures Mission Grant to expand on work that will make it easier for families to discover if they are carrying genetic mutations that cause sudden cardiac arrest.

Prof Jamie Vandenburg in the Institute's Innovation Centre

The grant will allow his team to adapt a new electrical test to also help diagnose those with neurological conditions, and muscle and kidney diseases.

Professor Vandenberg says: “We have already demonstrated that our test is a giant step forward in the accuracy and precision of genetic testing for those with heart disorders. We are highly confident that it may also transform the diagnosis of many other genetic conditions too such as epilepsies, hemiplegic migraine, myotonias, polycystic kidney disease, and cystic fibrosis.”

The test allows scientists to screen hundreds of genetic mutations at a time – so they can pinpoint harmful mutations quicker and more accurately.

Professor Vandenberg adds: “Current genetic tests have their limits – they can reveal if you have a variant but not if it’s harmful. By being able to determine exactly which variants cause loss of function we can ensure people are treated properly, and test family members accurately too.

“In the short term, this new funding will enable us to improve diagnosis for families with a wide range of inherited diseases. In the longer term, we want to use this electrical test platform to undertake drug screening so that we can identify the best drug to treat each specific gene defect in each patient - that would be game-changing personalised medicine.”

Funding to investigate how alcohol affects the heart

Professor Diane Fatkin has also been awarded around $1 million from the MRFF Cardiovascular Health Mission Fund to investigate the links between alcohol consumption and heart disease.

Prof Diane Fatkin holding a tank of zebrafish

The grant will allow Professor Fatkin and her team to study how alcohol affects the heart and the extent to which these changes are reversible.

Professor Fatkin says: “We have assembled an expert multidisciplinary team and will use techniques ranging from big data and imaging studies in human cohorts to zebrafish models. An important question is whether a person’s genetic makeup influences the severity of alcohol-induced effects. This work will help to identify people at greatest risk of alcohol-induced heart disease and help to target preventative strategies.

Our team is incredibly excited to receive funding for this important work that will help us to tackle the problem of alcohol-induced heart disease, which can be a major cause of illness and death.”

Establishing a new National Indigenous Genomics Network

Professor Jason Kovacic and several others from the Institute including Dr Johanna Barclay and Professor Sally Dunwoodie are also part of a 50-strong team of Australian wide-researchers, led by Australian National University and Telethon Institute’s Professor Alex Brown, awarded a $5 million MRFF Genomics Health Futures Mission grant to establish a National Indigenous Genomics Network.

Professor Kovacic says: “We are proud to be part of a project that will bring the benefits of genomic medicine to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This incredibly important project has so much promise to improve health outcomes for a community with disproportionate rates of heart disease.”

Professor Kovacic was also part of a team led by Monash University awarded an MRFF Cardiovascular Health Mission grant to investigate the link between heart disease and clonal haematopoiesis.

Improving Genetic Testing

Dr Adam Hill, Professor Fatkin and Professor Richard Harvey were also part of a team awarded a $3 million MRFF Genomics Health Futures Mission grant to improve genetic testing. Currently over a third of all patients undertaking genetic testing have no known cause of disease. This research program led by Dr Nathan Palpant at the University of Queensland using computational and disease-agnostic modelling will implement new methods to reveal genes that are the likely cause of disease and determine whether specific disease variants identified in patients are the cause of disease. The Institute's team will lead the disease modelling aims - using stem cell and zebrafish models to validate the functional predictions of new computational pipelines for the prediction of genetic variant pathogenicity.

Congratulations are also in order for Dr Charles Cox who’s been awarded an ARC Future Fellowship ($832,000) to explore how healthy heart cells sense and generate forces using molecules on their surface. The funding will enable Dr Cox to study how healthy cells sense both the repeated forces of our heartbeats and occasional injury. It’s hoped this will lead to the design and commercialisation of new biocompatible materials for implants, artificial tissues, and heart valves.

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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