Grant recipient warns of funding crisis in cardiovascular research

Australia’s cardiovascular disease research has hit crisis point as a lack of funding drives scientists in other, more lucrative research fields, says one of the country’s most senior cardiovascular researchers.

Professor Robert Graham AO, executive director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute told the limbic he was deeply concerned Australia was suffering from major “disease fatigue” in cardiovascular research.

“We’ve got a crisis in cardiovascular disease research in this country,” he said. “There just aren’t enough people doing heart research.”

He said he was frustrated that other diseases like cancer received at least double the amount of research funding compared to cardiovascular disease, and yet in some cancers such as breast, women were four times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer.

“I don’t begrudge cancer getting it because cancer is important, but heart diseases are equally important,” Professor Graham said.

He believes diversifying research organisations away from one central foundation, in this case the National Heart Foundation, may hold the key, as it has worked well in improving funding streams for various cancer streams.

Professor Graham was talking to the limbic just days after he was awarded an inaugural CSANZ Cardiovascular Research Innovation Grant at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide on the weekend.

The $100,000 grant, sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim and independently reviewed and awarded by the CSANZ Scientific Committee, will be used for a research project that will examine the molecular analysis of spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).

Professor Graham said he welcomed the grant and had high praise for Boehringer Ingelheim, which has provided its sponsorship as an unrestricted grant.

“Boehringer Ingelheim is showing great leadership in coming on board with this,” he said.

As one of Australia’s most experienced cardiac researchers, Professor Graham certainly has the runs on the board to make every cent of this grant work.

He has pioneered studies into the structure, function and signalling of adrenergic and other G-protein-coupled receptors, and more recently was involved in studies investigating the therapeutic potential of stem cells for cardiac diseases, and of regenerative mechanisms in the adult mammalian heart.

He said there was an urgent need for research into SCAD, a little known and understood condition that occurs when a tear forms in one of the blood vessels in the heart. It can slow or block blood flow to the heart, causing a heart attack, abnormalities in heart rhythm and death.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

The Victor Chang Institute has already done some research on SCAD, and these findings have just been accepted for publication in an upcoming major journal.

Professor Graham said the research – believed to be the first of its kind in Australia – showed SCAD commonly affected women in the 45-52-years age bracket. It is estimated that women are affected in about 95% of all cases and many die from the condition.

“All the research (so far) is observational, not really trying to get to the fundamental cause,” he said.

He said the CSANZ grant would be used to undertake genome sequencing in 50 patients with SCAD, with the aim to be able to re-create the “disease in a dish” to see what treatments might be effective, whether there are genetic links and whether there can be some way of identifying risk factors to prevent the tear occurring.

“There is potential for very far reaching research, and $100,000 is a good start,” he said.

Meanwhile, Professor Graham said he hoped other organisations and governments would sit up and take notice of the need for more cardiovascular research in Australia, a country with a reputation for innovation and research excellence.

“This is a major problem for tomorrow’s researchers and tomorrow’s leaders,” he said.

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