Queensland researchers will begin developing a comprehensive ‘encyclopedia’ of the heart in a world-first project that, if successful, will revolutionise cardiac research and treatment.
It is one of the most ambitious cardiac research projects ever attempted and is possible thanks to an $8 million fellowship from the Snow Medical Research Foundation – a philanthropic initiative to support emerging scientists to conduct game-changing research.
The fellowship has been awarded to Associate Professor James Hudson, the head of the Cardiac Bioengineering Research Group at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.
More than one quarter (27 per cent) of all deaths in Australia in 2017 were due to cardiovascular disease, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Associate Professor Hudson said the development of new heart drugs had stalled worldwide and innovative new approaches were urgently needed.
“Cardiovascular disease kills more people in Australia than cancer, but the number of drugs currently being developed is about seven-fold lower,” Associate Professor Hudson said.
“At the moment we still only understand a fraction of the biology underpinning how the heart works so it’s very difficult to figure out exactly what’s going wrong. And if you don’t know what’s going wrong, you can’t fix it.
“My research will help us better understand the heart so we may address problems when they arise.”
To conduct the research, Associate Professor Hudson and his team will make 80 thousand miniature heart muscles, known as organoids.
“We know there are about 8500 genes that control heart cells, known as cardiomyocytes,” he said.
“Using tens of thousands of miniature model hearts, we will knock out those genes one at a time and see what the response is. We will then catalogue how each gene controls the biology and function of heart muscle, creating an ‘encyclopedia’.
“If we’re successful, this could be the most comprehensive database of the heart ever developed.
“We will then use machine learning to read that information and build a working biological model of heart muscle in a computer.
“Our model will allow us, for the first time, to make predictions in a computer about what’s going wrong and how to fix it, before starting the costly and time-consuming process of laboratory experiments.
“This is a new approach in biology that’s based on engineering principles. If successful, it will greatly speed up research into cardiovascular disease.
“Our vision is that in future, we will be able to plug in a patient’s transcriptome – information that tells us about a person’s genes and environment – quickly compute what is wrong with the heart, and predict with precision what treatment they should receive.
“In the shorter term, our aim is to use our system to find new targets for more effective drugs for heart failure.
“This approach has never been achieved for any organ. We hope that down the track we could also apply it to other organs.”
Associate Professor Hudson is one of three Australian researchers – along with scientists at the Australian National University and the Garvan Institute – to be awarded the Snow Medical Research Foundation’s inaugural Snow Fellowship. The highly coveted grants are each worth $1 million per year over eight years and, together, will provide a $24 million investment in medical research in Australia.
The Chair of the Snow Medical Research Foundation, Tom Snow, has congratulated Associate Professor Hudson and the other two recipients.
“The Snow family is proud to support James’s bold vision. To take on this level of risk for such a large and long-term project would not be possible with existing government grants,” Mr Snow said.
“Snow Medical is about building cross-disciplinary teams, and we were particularly attracted to James’s unique capacity to combine engineering, biochemistry and mathematics.”
“We believe that with financial backing, these three scientists will produce paradigm-shifting research that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”
QIMR Berghofer’s Director and CEO, Professor Fabienne Mackay, applauded the Snow Medical Research Foundation’s vision and generosity.
“We are hugely grateful to Terry Snow and the Snow family for their extremely generous support in establishing and funding the Snow Fellowships,” she said.
“This is a truly visionary investment and, certainly, one of a kind in Australia. This highly ambitious program of research simply wouldn’t be possible without the guarantee of this significant funding over the next eight years.
“Associate Professor James Hudson is an emerging leader in the medical research field and Snow Medical’s support is a vote of confidence in him.
“Ultimately though, it is patients – across Australia and the world – who will benefit from Snow Medical’s generous investment in cardiac research.”