1 December 2020

Heart attack and stroke are major causes of death and disability worldwide. With over 500,000 Australians suffering from some form of coronary artery disease.

Professor Karlheinz Peter’s research is more important than ever. Myocardial infarction, or heart attack, is caused by the build-up of atherosclerotic plaques. Bursting or rupture of inflamed and thereby vulnerable plaques can cause blood clotting, which then leads to heart attack and stroke.

Professor Peter and his team, with funding from an NHMRC Development Grant, aimed to develop a technology in a clinical setting that would reliably identify unstable, rupture-prone plaques. They knew this preventive measure has the potential to save many lives of people otherwise impacted by coronary disease and resulting heart attack.

Their major breakthrough was the identification of a unique characteristic of the unstable plaque tissue. The team found a 
‘Near-InfraRed AutoFluorescence’, or NIRAF, a characteristic specific to these dangerous heart attack and stroke-causing plaques.

“Until now, there was no method available to clinicians that would allow the identification of those dangerous plaques that are at high risk of rupture,” Professor Peter explained.

Professor Karlheinz Peter

The challenge for Professor Peter’s team came when developing an animal model that builds up vulnerable, rupture-prone plaques as seen in patients with heart attack or stroke. The team was successful in developing such a model, which was then used to identify the characteristics of these plaques. 

“We have also used the same model to test and identify several drugs that provide plaque stabilisation, which is a major achievement and addresses a great medical need.”

Professor Peter described how NHMRC’s support enabled the original discovery and helped propel his team’s early findings.

“NHMRC provided the essential basis for  this research, as well as the first steps towards commercialisation 
to combat this heart disease which, on average, kills one Australian every 30 minutes.”

“The major outcome from our discoveries was the development of a specialised catheter to be used in patients to identify and treat vulnerable plaques before they cause a heart attack. This intracoronary catheter can detect NIRAF as a specific feature of unstable, rupture-prone plaques.

Next steps:

For the development and testing of an imaging device that can be placed into the coronary artery the research will require further and substantial funding. Clinical evidence must be established to show evidence that the detection of unstable plaques works reliably. For Professor Peter and his team the clinical evidence that this technology saves lives and reduces costs on our health care systems is the ultimate goal.

Featured image Credit
Photo supplied by: The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute

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