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Heart Research A Key To Improved Health

Media Release
Tuesday, 2nd November


Cardiovascular Research is playing an increasingly important role in reducing the most significant health risk in New Zealand, diseases of the heart and circulation, which still account for 40% of all deaths each year.

Heart Week (November 1-7) is focusing on the importance of lifestyle changes to reduce heart attack or heart failure. Meanwhile N.Z. medical researchers are steadily uncovering the secrets of the heart, providing new evidence to help prevent and treat heart disease better than ever before.

The Cardioendocrine Research Group (CCERG) at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago, is at the forefront of this important research effort, improving the health and saving the lives of thousands of heart patients.

In recent years the 43 member Group, made up of clinicians, scientists, nurses and technical staff, has made significant progress in understanding what causes heart disease and how to treat it more effectively. Progress which has been recognised internationally through research publications in high quality peer reviewed medical journals such as ‘The Lancet’, and because of its rigorous clinically-based approach.

At present the CCERG research includes five different innovative projects, supporting the focus of Heart Week, benefiting people with heart disease in this country and overseas.

“What we’re doing is driving our research effort towards much greater understanding of how and why heart disease and heart failure occurs,” explains Director Professor Mark Richards. “We’ve clearly made encouraging progress, allowing doctors to better predict who is likely to suffer a heart attack and how to treat individual patients more accurately and effectively, following diagnosis of heart failure or heart disease.”

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Key ongoing research projects at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences include:

- Assessing the usefulness of measuring a wide range of heart hormones following heart attack in association with more conventional tests including echocardiography. This study of 2000 people in Auckland and Christchurch will enable even more accurate diagnosis and treatment. The group has already established and tested one heart hormone N-BNP as an accurate measure of heart disease which is now used for better management.

- Investigating the role that genes play in heart disease by collating DNA from 4000 patients and comparing these with a control group of healthy people of the same age and gender. The aim is to be able to relate a person’s genetic make-up to their likelihood of experiencing heart disease or a heart attack and to predicting how well they may adapt to cardiac damage .

- Analysing the effect of hormones from the recently discovered Urocortin family and their use both before and after heart failure for improved treatment.

- Clarifying the influence of hormones in the bloodstream on sympathetic nervous activity, which plays an important role in the controlling blood pressure and heart rate. Sympathetic nervous activity is a key indicator of cardiac dysfunction.

Professor Richards says there are good reasons why so much heart research concentrates on the body’s endocrine system and hormones.

“A lot of what happens in the circulatory system and the heart is controlled by endocrine or hormonal responses. If we can manipulate and measure these hormones we can have a beneficial impact and reduce adverse health effects, thus altering the whole natural history of heart disease, “ he says.

So far research from the Christchurch Group has resulted in a reliable test for the heart hormone N-BNP, enabling doctors in general practice and hospitals to diagnose and treat more accurately people suffering from heart failure or heart disease, as distinct from another health problem.

This has the potential to save millions of dollars world-wide in misdiagnosed hospital admissions for heart failure, and is now being used in New Zealand, with 18,000 N-BNP hormone tests ordered every year. A similar uptake of this research is reflected overseas.

These practical results have been driven by the clinical and multidisciplinary input into CCERG research; doctors working alongside scientists and other health professionals.

Patients too are willing to volunteer for these studies, usually only involving blood tests and interviews. Collaboration with the Auckland Cardiology Research Group led by Dr Rob Doughty and Professor Norman Sharpe has also been important.

The achievements of the Christchurch Cardioendocrine Research Group, have made it one of the leading heart research groups internationally, and show that clinically driven medical research produces direct health benefits for New Zealanders in the fight against cardiovascular disease.

Contributors to the funding of this Research Group include the Health Research Council, the National Heart Foundation and the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation.


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