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Dwindling heart research pipeline may be at risk

Cardiology research is facing a substantial loss of expertise due to a lack of funding for basic science, according to researchers.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a major contributor to Australia's overall disease burden. It remains the leading cause of death and morbidity worldwide. 

One in twenty deaths is caused by heart attacks in Australia, with nineteen people dying from CVD daily.

Associate Professor Mary Kavurma from the Heart Research Institute worries that reduced cardiac research will lead to fewer breakthroughs in heart disease treatment. 

"It's a huge issue," Kavurma says.

"Medical research is like a pipeline, moving research ideas from discovery to implementation at patients' bedsides.”

"Without basic science, there are no medical breakthroughs, yet today we see a significant decline in funding and support for the researchers."

CVD is ranked as our healthcare's second highest expenditure – 8.7 per cent of Australia's health system's total costs are spent on CVD treatment, accounting for $11.8 billion.

The most costly heart conditions are coronary heart disease ($2.4 billion) and atrial fibrillation ($1.2 billion). 

Kavurma says that symptoms often go unnoticed and is a major contributor to CVD's high number of hospitalisations. 

"Many people don't know they are living with a heart disease until they have their first stroke," she says.

"There's so much researchers and frontline healthcare workers don't understand when diagnosing and treating heart conditions.” 

"It's central and fundamental to form new treatments and interventions, for which you need research and evidence."

On September 29th, the government announced that they'd allocate $156 million in funding towards medical research, with ($33.6 million) going towards 41 heart health projects

Although Kavurma says she welcomes the funding, it doesn't solve the issue of scientists leaving the field. 

People who pursue other types of research, such as longitudinal and explanatory studies, rely on private or philanthropic organisations for funding.

Kavurma says the grant funding success rate is about 10 percent, so the industry is facing a massive loss of expertise. 

Dr Belinda Dibartolo is one such researcher, who after 20 years in cardiovascular research now works as a Chief Operations Officer for an Australasian biotech company. 

“You’ve got to live and die by your next grant. I loved what I was doing. Let's face it, you don’t go into research for the money, you do it because you are passionate about it,” Dibartolo said. 

“I dedicated my life and soul to research, but stepping away was the hardest decision and I felt like I’d thrown away 20 years of my life, but without grants you have no research. 

“It’s hard to measure impact, because it’s just not how discovery science works. Medical breakthroughs often only happen because of the discovery science 30 years beforehand,” she said.

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