Heart Foundation funds HMRI research into effects of bushfires on heart and lung health

Nov 1 2021

Heart Foundation funds HMRI research into effects of bushfires on heart and lung health

Cardiovascular and respiratory researchers from the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) and the University of Newcastle are coming together to research the effects of bushfire smoke and other types of air pollution on the heart and lung (cardiopulmonary) health of regional Australians, thanks to a $75,000 Heart Foundation grant.

The research team will use a combination of approaches to assess the impacts of bushfire smoke exposure on cardiopulmonary health.

Early career researchers, Dr Tatt Jhong Haw and Dr Henry Gomez, will lead the project in collaboration with Associate Professor Doan Ngo and Associate Professor Jay Horvat.

Dr Haw said while the impact of bushfire smoke exposure on cardiopulmonary health remains largely unknown, their preliminary findings suggest that prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke is detrimental.

He said that with approximately 10 million Australians exposed to bushfire smoke for several months during the catastrophic 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires there is an urgent need to better understand the issue.

“With so many people exposed to bushfire smoke, the potential impact on cardiopulmonary health is unprecedented,” Dr Haw said.

“There has been little or no research to examine the impact of bushfire smoke exposure on cardiopulmonary health in regional areas such as the Hunter, afflicted by higher asthma burden and poor air quality,” he said.

“There is no ‘safe’ lower exposure levels and cardiopulmonary issues in patients can occur at levels below current regulatory standards.

Dr Gomez added that research does show that particulate matters from urbanisation, industry pollution, and natural disasters such as bushfires can aggravate cardiopulmonary health and lead to hospitalisation or death.

“With climate change increasing the risk of more fires, bushfire smoke exposure will become more of a public health challenge and economic burden,” Dr Gomez said.

“In regions where there is a high incidence of people with underlying cardiopulmonary disease and on-going exposure to other air pollution, the impacts of bushfire smoke exposure may be more significant,” he said.

The HMRI research is one of 72 new Australian research projects the Heart Foundation is funding into causes, prevention, and treatment of heart disease, stroke and related conditions. Announcing the $13.9 million grants, the Heart Foundation said it funds research that has the greatest potential to make a significant impact on heart health in Australia. Coronary heart disease is Australia’s single biggest killer.

HMRI director Professor Mike Calford said HMRI’s research capacity and its membership of NHMRC Centre for Innovation In Regional Health Care (NSW RHP) along with its biobank of patient samples for future clinical studies are critical factors to support this type of research.

“This study is a great example of the agility of HMRI researchers, who are able to quickly react to focus their expertise on emerging health needs in the community. This translational research will help to devise new interventions and strategies to mitigate the risks, reduce the healthcare burden, and improve patient outcomes from bushfire smoke in regional and rural Australia.”

The research will get underway in January and will be complete by the end of 2022.

About the research team

· Lead investigator Haw is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at HMRI with unique expertise in both cardiovascular and respiratory research. He has successfully completed more than 12 cardiopulmonary-related industry projects trialling experimental and clinical therapeutics.

· Chief investigator Gomez is an Early-Career Researcher with HMRI’s Respiratory Research group. His research focus is on the effects of environmental insults during pregnancy and early-life on health outcomes for children.

· Chief investigator Ngo is a National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow in cardiovascular research. She is co-director of HMRI’s Cardiovascular Research group.

· Chief investigator Horvat is an associate Professor in Immunology and Microbiology at HMRI and the University of Newcastle. He is an expert in the investigation and treatment of asthma and other respiratory diseases and specialises in understanding how interactions between infections, the environment and our bodies affects disease.