fbpx Dirk van Helden | HMRI

Professor Dirk van Helden

Research Program:
Research Topics:
Project Grant
2013 Project Grant
Project Grant
2011 Project Grant
Equipment Grant
2008 Equipment Grant
Project Grant
2006 Project Grant
HMRI Award for Research Excellence
2004 HMRI Award for Research Excellence
Project Grant
2003 Project Grant
Project Grant
2002 Project Grant

What are your research interests?

  • Heart pacemaking
  • The lymphatic system
  • Vascular mechanisms including the role of the endothelium and pericytes in various organs (gastrointestinal tract, brain, lung etc).
  • Smooth muscle mechanisms in the gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts.
  • Brain mechanisms in health and disease

Why did you get into research? 

I had the choice of working in industry as an engineer or doing biomedical research where, if successful, I would be able to run my own laboratory. The latter easily won out for me as I had become fascinated with biology and in unraveling some of the many unknowns of this subject. I ended up specialising in physiology which best suited my engineering background. 

What would be the ultimate goal for your research?

That my discoveries will advance understanding of key physiological processes, in turn leading to improved medical approaches.


Professor Dirk van Helden is a senior researcher with the University of Newcastle’s Priority Clinical Centre for Cardiovascular Health (PCC CVH) and is the co-leader of the HMRI Cardiovascular program, studying the cellular properties that result in rhythms or pacemaking. In the heart, it is this pacemaking ability of cells that causes the heart to regularly beat and pump blood around the body.

Traditionally, heart cells were considered to have an intrinsic ‘clock’ which kept them beating all together. Professor van Helden’s work has revealed the existence of an alternative second pacemaker mechanism - cells of the heart, gut, brain and even uterus are being investigated to determine if stores of calcium can affect the pacemaking and rhythmic capabilities of cells.

This work has the potential to change the understanding of diseases of the heart including arrhythmias, gastrointestinal diseases, mood disorders and conditions associated with abnormal contractions and labour in pregnant women and therefore is of critical importance. 

A serendipitous discovery by Professor van Helden and his team while investigating lymphatic pumping of venom from snake bites has led to the production of a topical treatment for snakebites which slows the spread of venom from the lymph system. This may be particularly important for areas of the body which cannot be isolated with a tourniquet when bitten such as the torso.  

Professor van Helden has published more than 100 peer reviewed original research articles in top ranking journals including Nature, Nature Medicine and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He has presented at over 50 national and international conferences and has been awarded the HMRI Award for Research Excellence in 2004. 

Specialised/Technical Skills 

  • Ca2+ imaging through high-speed confocal microscopy
  • Microelectrode & patch clamp electrical recording
  • Immunohistochemistry



Investigating the basis for diabetes-associated gastric motility disorders
Project Grant

Digestive disorders remain a major health burden.



First Aid for Cytotoxic Snakebite
Project Grant



Mechanisms of action of 2-3 fatty acids in control of aterial arrhythmias
Project Grant


Award for Research Excellence - Dirk van Helden
HMRI Award for Research Excellence


Mechanisms of Action of Omega 3 Fatty Acids in reduction of Hypertension
Project Grant


How omega 3 fatty acids reduce blood pressure
Project Grant