October 28, 2005
Heart Foundation Invests in World-Leading Research
The National Heart Foundation of New Zealand has announced more than $2 million worth of investment in the heart health
of New Zealanders in its latest funding round.
Ten major research project grants were awarded, many to world-leading clinical or public health projects, says the Heart
Foundation’s medical director Professor Norman Sharpe. Seven fellowships, six small project grants, two grants-in-aid
and four travel grants were also awarded.
“It is crucially important that New Zealand-based research is funded, as it will lead to better quality health care and
heart health care in the long-term. The culture of enquiry and research directly contributes to the quality of care in a
country,” says Professor Sharpe.
“This year our grants span a wide range of clinical projects, community and public health projects, and pure science
projects, showing the breadth of research being undertaken in New Zealand.”
He says the quality of the ten major grants supported is so high that they would have been funded anywhere in the world.
“Unfortunately, New Zealand’s overall investment in research is still too low in comparison to its most closely aligned
countries. Our funding is only a relatively small contribution to what should be a large investment pool,” says Prof.
“The Heart Foundation annually invests in research but, as a charity, is reliant upon the generosity of New Zealanders
to continue making this contribution.”
Included in the grants is funding to Auckland researcher Dr Brett Cowan’s “Effect of pulmonary valve replacement in
tetralogy of Fallot” project. Using The University of Auckland’s state-of-the-art MRI facility, Dr Cowan and his
colleagues are scanning patients born with congenital heart conditions and who are scheduled for pulmonary valve
This world-leading study aims to pin-point the most effect time to replace the valve and avoid repeat surgery in this
growing patient population.
“Since the 1960s babies born with heart conditions have been undergoing surgery. New Zealand is fortunate to have had
several excellent congenital heart surgeons and now has a large population of adult survivors of complex surgery,” says
Dr Cowan, the Director of the Centre for Advanced MRI.
“One of the biggest problems we are faced with now is anticipating when to replace the pulmonary valve before the right
ventricle is irreversibly damaged from a faulty outlet or pulmonary valve.”
The study is a collaborative effort between cardiologist Tim Hornung, software analyst Alistair Young, cardiac
radiologist Chris Occleshaw and Dr Cowan from the technical MRI perspective.
Using MRI, the project will measure the good and bad outcomes of patients’ post-valve replacement surgery and, using a
detailed mathematical model, aim to predict the most beneficial time to operate.
“It is a balancing act – if we operate and replace the valve too early the patient will require future surgery, as
valves do not last forever. However, if we operate too late the right ventricle may have become permanently damaged,”
says Dr Cowan.
“If our study can help to predict the correct time to operate, it will improve the clinical status and life expectancy
of many people who are living with congenital heart disease with this particular problem.”
Dr Cowan is grateful to the Heart Foundation for its support. Despite offers to go overseas he believes that New Zealand
is a good place to conduct research, as the small population base often means easier access to patient groups. However,
he says funding support is critical but it is a very competitive market for the limited support available nationwide.
Three of the other 10 major research grants also involve MRI techniques, as the importance of this technique becomes
further understood. They include small project grants for Starship Children’s Hospital’s Dr Tom Gentles, Dr Alistair
Young from the University of Auckland and another for Dr Cowan.
The Heart Foundation receives numerous grant applications annually. All are assessed by its Scientific Advisory Group
comprising of Professor Sharpe, Professor Jim Mann (chairman) as well as a number of leading professors, associate
professors and doctors from New Zealand’s medical and scientific community.
The Heart Foundation has spent more than $25 million in funding research since its establishment in 1968. Much of the
research funded has significantly contributed to lowering New Zealand’s high rate of cardiovascular disease, the
country’s leading cause of death.