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YESTERDAY'S SCIENCE, TOMORROW'S TECHNOLOGY

How new technology is shaping new research for women with heart disease

Rewind to 1994. Bill Clinton is President, Disney’s The Lion King is the highest grossing film, Janet Jackson is top of the pop charts, and the World Wide Web is just a toddler.

It was also the year that Dr Siiri Iismaa started working at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, on Tuesday the 14th of June to be exact.

“It was just myself and one other scientist. We hardly had any equipment, so we had to borrow a lot of it from another laboratory. We shared a Macintosh computer the size of an ATM machine! It’s quite funny to think of the technology back then. If I wanted to get my hands on a scientific journal I had to make a trip to the library and I’d often have to wait months for the latest issue to arrive on a boat from America.”

Almost 9,000 days later and the world is a very different place but one thing hasn’t changed – Siiri still works at the Victor Chang Institute.

She scoffs at the idea of a career change. “I’m having too much fun making a difference,” she casually replies.

From heart regeneration to biochemical analysis, Dr Iismaa has lost track of the number of research projects she’s worked on. Her latest research is focused on a disease called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, or SCAD for short.

Never heard of it? Until very recently SCAD was as rare as a floppy disk. It’s predominantly misdiagnosed and occurs when there’s a block in the blood flow to the heart. It causes a heart attack, abnormalities in heart rhythm or sudden death.

“The only hope SCAD patients have is medical research on a molecular scale. To make inroads into developing a treatment or prevention, we need to understand how and why someone develops SCAD and that requires research at the cellular, molecular and genetic levels, with the latest technology.” – Dr Siiri Iismaa 

Women at risk

“I was struck by the fact that 95% of the cases are women and they’re not your traditional high risk patients. They’re not overweight, they’re not diabetic and they’re fit. And then all of a sudden they present to the hospital or GP with a heart attack because their coronary arteries have split. A lot of the time they just get sent home without treatment!”

Mum of four, Pamela McKenzie, suffered a SCAD as she was taking out the laundry.

“I felt a twinge in my chest, almost like a click. Then I felt a sudden intense, extreme pain just to the left of the centre of my chest. This pain radiated down both arms and then I felt a wave of nausea wash over me. When I got to the hospital, the nurses told me there was nothing wrong and that I’d be going home shortly. Thankfully they did some tests to double check,” Pamela reveals.

A revolving door of specialists and doctors told her “it’s extremely rare”, “one in a million”, “I’ve never seen this before”, “you’re lucky to be alive”.

A social network

Feeling isolated and anxious Pamela sought hope and comfort in the 2.2 billion monthly Facebook users around the globe. Bingo. It was as effective as a recruitment drive on a jobs site. And so began the first patient study in Australia (if not the world) where the patients were recruited on social media.

“It’s completely unheard of,” explains Siiri. “I’ve been really amazed by that Facebook page. To think that you can now recruit an entire patient database on a social platform is fascinating. Our whole study has grown out of that and everyone is so willing to participate.”

Now Siiri’s desk is piled high with DNA swabs from SCAD survivors.

“Each recruit is given a small take-home kit containing a mouth swab. We can isolate the DNA from the cheek cells on the swab. That gives us enough DNA to search the patient’s entire genetic make-up through whole genome sequencing. We’re hoping to identify a genetic mutation that may be causing this disease and it requires enormous processing power to analyse the billions of pieces of code and data.”

Siiri’s pixilated Macintosh computer from 1994 has long gone. Instead she relies on a fancy gene machine called the HiSeq X System. It’s state of the art, top of the line, best in the world. For now….

Donate to heart research 

Driving our discoveries 

This Australian first SCAD research at the Victor Chang Institute would not be possible without support from the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand, the St Vincent’s Clinic Foundation and the Catholic Archdiocese. Your support will impact the progress of our research in an area of significant concern for women and our community. To advance this research, we not only need funds to do the genetic testing but, as importantly, funds to undertake studies at the cellular level.

Cardiac Biology Laboratory 

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