Reviving 'dead hearts'

Australia’s three largest cardiac hospitals are collaborating to improve the quality and quantity of donor hearts, bringing hope to Australians desperate for a second chance.

Chronic heart failure kills 10 Australians every day. The gold standard treatment is a heart transplant. However, 80 per cent of donor hearts are damaged and not suitable for transplant.

A major collaborative project from renowned national and international hospitals, research units and universities – including Australia’s three major cardiac transplant centres – is aiming to expand the pool of donor hearts available for transplant. By investigating alternative donor heart sources and preservation methods, the project team hopes to address the shortage of available hearts.

Professor John Fraser

Professor John Fraser is heading up UQ’s Critical Care Research Group based at The Prince Charles Hospital.

“Our project – we call it ‘the Dead Heart Project’ – is trying to create ‘Gatorade for hearts’,” says Professor Fraser. “We are aiming to create the optimal environment and fluid that will rejuvenate donor hearts with the right balance of minerals and nutrients.”

The three major cardiac transplant centres include Brisbane’s Prince Charles Hospital (Professor John Fraser), Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital (Professor David McGiffin) and Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital (Professor Peter Macdonald).

“In a country as large as Australia,” Professor Fraser explains, “the tyranny of distance means that donor hearts can be irreversibly harmed in transport. Our study aims to not only halt injury while the heart is being transported, but also to reverse any injury.”

The Dead Heart Project’ will investigate the biology of brain death and then seek to reverse the cardiac injury that it causes – using a prototype mechanical pump, mixed with a number of enzymes, oxygen, nutrients and potentially stem cells. This will ultimately enable more donated hearts to remain suitable for transplant, and these hearts will function better when transplanted.

The project is estimated to span four years and cost more than $5 million. Last year, the project was awarded $1.67 million from the NHMRC, $1.3 million from UQ and $900,000 from The Prince Charles Hospital Foundation.

By improving the quality and viability of donor hearts, it is hoped the project will not only add more years to the life of the recipient, but perhaps more importantly, more life to their years – with a heart that allows them to return to work, play and exercise.

The Dead Heart Project is a logical addition to the global research projects being undertaken by UQ’s Critical Care Research Group. The group also comprises the first NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in bionic hearts and lungs.

It was in back in 2007 that Professor Fraser first kicked off the engineering component of the group, in collaboration with Brisbane engineer Dr Daniel Timms, and through their work on the world’s first artificial heart – the BiVACOR device. Professor Fraser continues to have a good eye for picking exceptional talent in acute care research.

The Dead Heart Project is helping to build a translational research group composed of leaders in their respective fields, which aims to mould the landscape of heart transplantation and improve the quality of life for heart failure patients worldwide.

The Dead Heart Project was first supported through public donations via the Common Good – an initiative of the Prince Charles Hospital Foundation – and the Alfred Hospital Foundation.

“We were working on a hunch,” says Professor Fraser. “These two foundations took a chance on us to provide the proof of concept. Now, with the NHMRC and UQ funding, we can rapidly advance our investigations across Australia’s largest heart hospitals.”