Change that could save countless lives

By | May 28, 2021

A basic scientist isn’t someone you’ll see at your hospital bedside or splashed across headlines when a life has been saved.

But the work they do has likely helped save you in some way.

Professor Roland Stocker has spent his career working on scientific research that will ultimately have a much bigger impact beyond the lab.

And now he thinks his team are on the cusp of making that big impact.

The Heart Research Institute scientist believes their research on what causes heart attacks will fundamentally prevent Australians from having them, saving thousands of lives in the process.

Professor Stocker was thinking about retirement a few years ago when he and his team made a groundbreaking discovery.

They found an inflammatory enzyme responsible for causing unstable plaques in mice.

Professor Stocker says unstable plaques may be responsible for 30 to 50 per cent of heart attacks in humans, and there is currently no early warning that a person is at risk.

His team are working on creating a world-first novel diagnostic test to help identify and potentially treat people who are at high risk of a heart attack because of the presence of unstable plaque in arteries.

The underlying cause of a heart attack is a build-up of plaque composed of cholesterol and inflammatory cells on the inside of the arteries.

As their lifesaving work continues – and they push for more funding to keep it going, Professor Stocker has put his retirement plans on hold – and for good reason.

“I’m a basic scientist so I try and understand the cause of heart attacks,” he says.

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“The research we do does not immediately translate itself to the clinic.

“I really think the work we’ve done has got the potential to be useful in the clinic and for the every day Australian.”

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Professor Stocker says he also kept at his work longer thanks to NSW Health funding for cardiovascular research because “without support you can’t do the great things you want to do”.

He says while successful laboratories don’t have all their eggs in one basket, working on various projects at once, he’s so confident that he’s gathered all his eggs up.

“This is it, and so this reflects the belief and commitment I have that this really has legs,” he says.

“I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t hopeful. I really think this has got legs to stand on.

“When I talk to the cardiologists they really like it.”

Professor Stocker explains that in 2021 cardiology still essentially only uses one piece of information that determines what happens to a patient at risk of a heart attack.

“That’s how open is the artery still and if it’s blocked by more than 70 per cent we put in a stent,” he says.

“The treatment is still almost entirely based on a physical measurement and this, in fact, is completely inconsistent with evidence we’ve gathered over the last 10 years.

“That evidence has shown it’s not the size of the lumen (a hollow passageway through which blood flows), or how much is remaining, but the composition of the plaque that protrudes into the lumen that is much more important.”

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With no tool to assess the composition currently, the HRI believes they’ve discovered activity that can be non-invasively measured and treated.

“Think of a pipe with a circular circumference and the inside volume of that becomes reduced because something grows into the inside of the pipe,” Professor Stocker says.

“The physical measurement is what is remaining inside the pipe, as the lesion grows into the pipe.

“You get a plumber in if a pipe is blocked. What we do is put in a balloon to expand it, by putting a stent in.

“This is looking at what causes that intrusion in the first place and then inhibiting the process that causes the intrusion.

“It makes sense – of course you can call the plumber, but why not treat the problem in the first place than deal with the consequences?”

Professor Stocker says heart attack statistics are quite frightening and that’s the part the public sees, but prevention is just as important.

“If you don’t have the tool to measure what you think causes a heart attack, how can you develop treatment for it?,” he says.

“Having a tool to assess I think will be extremely useful in development of novel treatment options.”

The Heart Research Institute’s chief executive Dr Stephen Hollings says the organisation needs $ 1.2 million to move Professor Stocker’s research to the next stage.

“HRI is a not-for-profit and receives some government funding, but we rely on the community for 80 per cent of our funds,” he says.

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“We hope this fundraising appeal will enable the research team to test their discovery on humans and show we can detect and prevent heart attacks outside lab models.

“Ultimately this would save hundreds of thousands of lives around the world each year.”

At 64 and knowing how long clinical trials take, Professor Stocker knows he may not ultimately see the end results of his work.

“There are not that many opportunities you get in a career or lifetime that you can translate (from the lab),” he says.

“I have a good judgment on what can be translated into the clinic and I hope I’m not wrong.

“My hope is while I might not see the implication into clinic, I hope some of the people I work with will.’

He then quips, “I’m not planning to do this until I’m 100”.

To donate to the institute’s research visit their campaign page.

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