Auckland expertise key to global heart rhythm research

10 June 2016
Professor Bruce Smaill
Professor Bruce Smaill

Bioengineers and physiologists from Auckland are partners in a prestigious global group just awarded a $6 million grant to investigate heart imaging technologies for heart failure and arrhythmia.

The international research network led from Europe, will collaborate on research into the early identification and treatment of life-threatening heart rhythm disturbances.

The grant comes from the Fondation Leducq based in Paris, that funds internationally collaborative research in cardiovascular and neurovascular disease. The $US6 million grant over five years, includes about $1 million for the research carried out by the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI).

“The result will likely produce another significant advance in personalised medicine - in this case in the treatment for people with heart rhythm problems,” says the principal investigator for the Auckland-based research for the project, Professor Bruce Smaill from the ABI at the University of Auckland.

“For a given individual, this might include an assessment of risk based on genetic profile, detailed measurement of heart rhythm and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), followed by targeted ablation of small regions of the heart that are responsible for the risk,” he says.

“Ablation remains the main treatment for heart rhythm disturbance and Professor Haissaguerre, the European coordinator of the network, pioneered the standard approach for ablating atrial fibrillation,” says Professor Smaill.

“Discovery of new drugs that reduce structural changes which give rise to rhythm disturbance is also important,” he says. ”Better understanding of the mechanisms responsible for heart rhythm disturbance is the key.”

“The Auckland group will image hearts from heart transplant recipients. Their research will enable them and the network as a whole to check out ideas for ablation or reversal of rhythm disturbances – from experiment and structural analysis of tissue in whole hearts to computer models of the heart.

The network group project funded by Fondation Leducq is called the 2016 TransAtlantic Networks of Excellence Programme on ‘RHYTHM: Repolarization HeterogeneitY imaging for personalized Therapy of Heart arrhythmia’.

The six network partners include international experts from France, the USA, the Netherlands and New Zealand, led by world renowned cardiologist, Professor Michel Haissaguerre from the University of Bordeaux in France and bioengineer, Professor Igor Efimov from George Washington University, in the USA.

The partners have complementary knowledge in cardiac repolarization and Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) using state-of-the-art tools that will enable the first comprehensive study of human repolarization and the mechanisms of SCD from the single molecule to the specific patient.

The network will bring together top technological expertise on high-resolution imaging, mathematical modelling, and non-invasive panoramic cardiac mapping and device development.

“The unique combination of knowledge and novel technology will be highly complementary and innovative,” says Professor Smaill.

This support from the Fondation Leducq will also enable sharing the expertise and resources available in the various groups as well as facilitating training of fellows and postdocs, and translation of new discoveries to clinical practice.

Professor Smaill will lead a group from Auckland that has extensive experience in high-resolution imaging and 3D reconstruction of microstructure in relatively large volumes of cardiac tissue.

They have also developed the optics for confocal microscopy and surface imaging, as well as constructing purpose-built systems for high throughput image acquisition.

The Auckland group has a wealth of experience in modelling electrical activation on image-based representations of cardiac structure at both the tissue and whole heart levels. The Auckland team has a long-standing collaboration with Professor Olivier Bernus in Bordeaux on myocardial microstructure.

For media enquiries email Suzi Phillips, Media Advisor ABI.