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Five Victor Chang Institute projects receive NHMRC support for 2019 and beyond

Discovering if the heart can regenerate after experiencing severe damage, is one of five Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute research projects to be funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Dr Kazu Kikuchi is fishing for clues – to understand how zebrafish, a small freshwater creature has the unique ability to heal damage to its heart. When a human suffers trauma to their heart, such as a heart attack, the damage is currently irreversible, and unfortunately can be fatal. 

If Dr Kikuchi’s team can replicate a zebrafish’s ability to heal its own heart, then it could enable humans to fight heart disease. Thanks to the NHMRC, Dr Kikuchi’s work has today been given a boost which will support our scientists in trying to find cures for cardiovascular disease.

This project is just one of five at the Victor Chang Institute to attract NHMRC Project Grant Funding in the 2018 funding round. Together, these grants will also support research into Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), cardiac rhythm disorders, congenital heart disease and inherited arrhythmia syndromes.

Professor Bob Graham, Executive Director of the Victor Chang Institute is extremely proud of all the scientists who were successful in securing support from the NHMRC.

“I’m delighted to see such a variety of our research supported by the NHMRC today, with a success rate well above the Australian average. These projects have the potential to help the one in three Australians who are dying prematurely of cardiovascular disease” Professor Graham said.

“It is unfortunate, nonetheless, that many other research projects being undertaken at the Victor Chang Institute with extraordinary translational potential did not receive funding starting in 2019.”

“The research across all 22 of our laboratories is vital for finding preventions, treatments and cures for Australians affected by heart disease, so we will continue to work hard to find other sources of funding,” Professor Graham added.

The Victor Chang Institute projects receiving NHMRC funding for 2019 and beyond include:

Heart regeneration – Dr Kazu Kikuchi

Researchers will seek to understand how zebrafish can successfully regenerate their hearts without any long-term damage. This project will use state-of-the-art genome editing techniques and genome-wide transcriptomic and epigenomic analysis to define a key molecular mechanism for the induction of cardiomyocyte dedifferentiation and proliferation in zebrafish. 

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) – Professor Bob Graham

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) occurs when an inner layer of one of the blood vessels in the heart tears. The majority of people who develop SCAD (most commonly women in their 40s and 50s) are often healthy with no known risk factors of heart disease. This project will investigate the genetics of SCAD using whole genome sequencing. This research has the potential to inform prevention and management of SCAD though an understanding of the underlying mechanisms that case the disease.

Drug screening – Dr Adam Hill

Before new drugs come to market, we need to ensure that they not only work, but also do not have any unintended side effects. The current guidelines for screening new drugs for cardiac toxicity are based on measuring how drugs affect the timing of cardiac electrical signals. This assay is widely regarded as being too simplistic. This research project will test whether a new assay based on analysis of how drugs affect the morphology of cardiac electrical signals will provide more accurate estimation of risk.

Congenital heart disease (CHD) – Professor Sally Dunwoodie

Professor Sally Dunwoodie and her team have previously shown that nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) deficiency causes complex birth defects in humans and mice, and that in mice vitamin B3 supplementation during gestation inhibits these defects. This research project is focused on determining the broader applicability of this discovery by determining if environmental factors (e.g. diet) alone, or gene-environment interaction, can cause adverse pregnancy outcomes. Victor Chang Institute researchers will examine various environmental factors and/or gene mutations to see if they cause NAD deficiency and adverse pregnancy outcomes. 

Career Development Fellowship – Professor Jamie Vandenberg  

The rhythm of the heartbeat is controlled by electrical signals that flow through specialised proteins called ion channels. Genetic mutations in ion channel proteins can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death. However, the clinical presentation of patients with ion channel mutations can be highly variable which makes management very difficult. In this study, we will use induced pluripotent stem cell technology to investigate the molecular and cellular basis of variable clinical presentation for heart rhythm disorders. The aspirational outcome for this project will be identification of specific modifiable factors that could improve treatment outcomes for patients with inherited arrhythmia syndromes.

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