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Q&A with Dr Nathan Palpant
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Q&A with Dr Nathan Palpant

Deadly spider venom offers hope to people having a heart attack

Dr Nathan Palpant is a Heart Foundation Future Leader, Senior Research Fellow and Group Leader at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience. He is also Co-Chair of the Heart Foundation’s Queensland Cardiovascular Research Network. Dr Palpant recently discovered that the venom of one of the world’s deadliest spiders could help protect the heart in people having a heart attack. This finding made headlines across the country, including ABC, 9News and Washington Post. It was even translated into 47 languages by International broadcaster Voice of America.   

What motivates you to do your research?

I have always been interested in the heart and also have a family history of cardiovascular disease. My mother almost died of a heart attack recently and my uncle passed away because of a heart attack a few years ago. This personal connection to cardiovascular disease is something many people share. It reflects the broader issue that cardiovascular disease is a major public health issue impacting our society more than any other disease. Working at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience has provided opportunities for my research group to work with world leaders in developing a new generation of medicines and treatments for people living with cardiovascular disease. 

What are you currently researching?

My laboratory aims to understand how heart cells work and respond to stress. Our research is providing new clues about molecules involved in controlling heart cells. We hope this will help address longstanding challenges in cardiovascular disease. I have built a team of talented individuals with different skill sets including physiologists, geneticists, computer scientists, and cell biologists. This diverse team enables us to ask research questions from many different perspectives. We are also working with health professionals, industry partners, and medicine development experts to design our research questions with the view to solving major health problems. Working together will help us identify where the gaps are to improve the lives of people with cardiovascular disease.  

What difference will your research make to people’s cardiovascular health in Australia?

The heart is one of the most sensitive organs in the body because it does not tolerate stresses caused by a lack of oxygen. This is what happens when someone has a heart attack and blood flow is blocked to parts of the heart. When blood flow through the heart’s arteries (coronary arteries) is blocked, heart muscle becomes damaged and billions of heart cells immediately begin to die. These cells are permanently lost because the heart has no ability to regenerate damaged tissue. While decades of research have uncovered incredible knowledge about the stress responses of the heart during a heart attack, no new medicines have made it to the clinic that stop heart cells from dying. 

This reveals a continuing major area of need for research. The findings from my research program focus on new knowledge, new medicines, and new technologies that enable major breakthroughs for cardiovascular health. We hope that our work not only informs international efforts to understand diseases of the heart, but also contributes critical new knowledge to deliver medicines and treatments.

Are there any recent discoveries from your research you can share with us?

Our recent work identified a new molecule called Hi1a, found in the venom of the Fraser Island funnel-web spider.  Hi1a has the remarkable ability to block heart cells from dying when the heart is stressed during a heart attack. We found that Hi1a prevents activation of a previously undiscovered channel, ASIC1a, that delivers a signal for cells to die when there isn’t enough oxygen to function and survive. We have shown that Hi1a helps cells tolerate this stress so that once doctors can restore blood flow after a heart attack, more heart cells survive. This improves the heart’s ability to function after the heart attack.   

This molecule has been tested in animal models and human heart cells we make from stem cells. So far, Hi1a has been shown to be both safe and very effective at protecting heart cells from dying. We are working with health professionals and medicine development experts to advance towards clinical testing, with the hope of addressing this major area of need.

What role has funding from the Heart Foundation had in your career journey?

Funding from the Heart Foundation has been critical for my research program. Without funding for our work, we cannot make the breakthroughs required to improve the lives of thousands of people every year. The path to discovery is very long. Often what we find in the laboratory takes years to reach the clinic, but investing in early discoveries is critical for delivering innovative ideas with major impacts.   

Who would have imagined that studying the venom of a funnel-web spider would deliver a possible new treatment for people who have had a heart attack? We need funding to support these fundamental building blocks of ideas and knowledge. Sometimes creativity and determination can lead to major breakthroughs like this.  





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