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Australian researchers are making a splash in heart attack prevention and diagnosis 

It’s three minutes to six on a bright Monday morning and Professor Roland Stocker is waiting outside a locked door. A familiar crowd of regulars stands beside him, clutching sports bags and towels while they chat about grandkids, football scores or the weather. The glass doors slide open and Roland heads for Lane 4, Fast. Underwater, away from the laboratory, this is where the celebrated professor gets his best ideas. The repetitive freestyle rhythm is meditative and, like the water, the ideas just flow.

“I think a lot about research when I swim. My thoughts are free to go anywhere. Much of the inspiration for my key experiments come to me in the pool.”

Three kilometres later and Roland is on his way back home. He spends almost an hour answering a multitude of emails, then hops on his bike and cycles 25 minutes into work. He doesn’t think about his research as he rides. He is too busy “trying not to get run over”.

Today Roland is re-writing a scientific paper about an enzyme which could be a major culprit causing heart attacks. It’s a promising piece of work but it needs finessing. A thought occurred to Roland during this morning’s swim and it could be the difference between a rejection and publication.

The paper reports more than a decade of work condensed into 8,950 words. The enzyme is mentioned 213 times. For a non-scientist, the enzyme, myeloperoxidase, has a forgettable name, but it has an unforgettable property…

“It’s what makes pus yellow,” Professor Stocker explains. “It’s present in our body’s immune cells.”

It’s also present in the blood vessels that provide the heart with oxygen and nutrients. More importantly, Roland has just discovered that myeloperoxidase causes plaques to become unstable in our arteries. When an unstable plaque ruptures it clogs the blood vessels and can lead to a heart attack. Thanks to Roland’s research, we now know that wherever there is myeloperoxidase activity there is also an unstable plaque ready to erupt and cause damage to the heart.

“This is potentially really important for clinical cardiology. Unstable plaques kill people. If we could translate our findings into humans it could have a potentially big impact in decreasing lives lost to myocardial infarction and stroke as well.”

A non-invasive test

There’s another major part to Roland’s research. He is trying to develop a non-invasive test to determine who is at risk. In Roland’s eyes, this is the “holy grail” of interventional cardiology.

Currently, doctors rely on angiograms to determine whether the heart’s arteries are blocked or narrowed by plaques. But it only paints half the picture and you cannot see what is actually occurring inside the arterial wall. So your next option is an Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) scan. This procedure can identify unstable plaques within the arterial wall but it is invasive, costly and risky.

“As I get older I think about this more. People of my age die of this. I’d personally like to do a non-invasive test to see whether I have unstable plaque in my heart and then I’d like to do something about it...

"Let’s say I do have an unstable plaque… it could rupture at any moment clogging my arteries and to avoid this my only option would be an invasive procedure. I kept thinking ‘there has to be another way’.”

And there is; three words – magnetic resonance imaging, better known as an MRI. Roland has discovered a non-invasive way to detect unstable plaques in arteries with a simple MRI scan. It involves a chemical probe which highlights myeloperoxidase activity like a neon sign. It’s a potential game changer.

So how does Roland propose to treat the problem? The good news is, we are close to having an effective medication. Due to the essential role the enzyme plays in our immune system, drug companies have been developing myeloperoxidase inhibitors for years. But until now, no one has plans to use it to tackle atherosclerosis in the heart.

“We’ve narrowed it down to one specific drug which inhibits the enzyme and stabilises the dangerous plaque in a mouse model. Our results are exciting and we’re ready for the next steps.

"At the moment we have been administering the drug right at the beginning, before the unstable plaque has developed. But I want to know what happens if we wait until the plaque is about to erupt? Will the drug still be as effective? Can we stabilise a vulnerable plaque? What effect does the drug have in the presence of other medication, like statins? We have a long list of questions and I need some inspiration!”

Perhaps tomorrow’s swim will shed some light…

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Driving our discoveries 

Professor Roland Stocker’s research has received support from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council. It also relies on a generous contribution from The Angles Foundation. This funding is integral to the ongoing success of the research program at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. Equipping our leading scientists with the very best technology is critical to providing better patient care and could help prevent the deaths of thousands of men and women who continue to die from cardiovascular disease each year.

Make a difference

  • By making a philanthropic investment in support of this program, you will enable our researchers to: 
    Increase our pace of discovery dramatically in coronary artery care and accelerate out capacity to save countless more lives sooner
  • Provide clinical practitioners with an effective tool capable of non-invasively detecting unstable plaques that could dramatically reduce the number of fatal heart attacks and change clinical practice 
  • Ensure Australia remains at the international forefront of preventative medical advancement against coronary artery disease and heart attacks 

Vascular Biology Laboratory