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Q&A with Professor Levon Khachigian
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Q&A with Professor Levon Khachigian

Developing a new medicine for inflammatory cardiovascular disease

Professor Levon Khachigian received his PhD from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in 1993. After completing further training in vascular pathobiology (the study of blood vessel disease) at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, he returned to UNSW’s Centre for Vascular Research in 1996 and started his own group.

Professor Khachigian heads the Vascular Biology and Translational Research Laboratory within the School of Medical Sciences, UNSW Faculty of Medicine & Health.

In 2020, Professor Khachigian received a Vanguard Grant to develop a new medicine for inflammatory cardiovascular disease.

What are you currently researching?

I am currently researching how inflammation plays a role in cardiovascular disease and developing new ways to target this complex process.

Coronary heart disease is a type of cardiovascular disease that occurs when arteries supplying blood to the heart are narrowed and clogged by a build-up of plaque. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol and cellular materials. Plaques can become unstable causing a blood clot which triggers a heart attack.
Inflammation is thought to play a key role in the development of coronary heart disease, by contributing to virtually all stages of atherosclerosis, including plaque formation and its instability. Several recent large clinical trials provide strong evidence that cardiovascular disease is a treatable inflammatory condition. Current anti-inflammatory drugs have their limitations.

Our project will investigate whether a new experimental medicine can treat the inflammation involved in cardiovascular disease. We also want to understand exactly how this medicine can protect the heart and blood vessels. We are hoping this knowledge can also be used to treat different types of cardiovascular disease.

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

People who have had a heart attack are at higher risk of having another one. New targeted approaches are needed to reduce the chance of cardiac events and improve quality of life.  If we can find new medicines for inflammatory cardiovascular disease that are safe and effective, this may reduce suffering and improve the heart health of Australians and millions around the world.

What motivated you to do your research?

I am motivated by the need for new and effective treatments for cardiovascular disease, which remains a major cause of illness and death in Australia. Cardiovascular disease is responsible for around one in four deaths.

Medical research can make a real difference to our lives; think of medical applications of penicillin, spray-on skin to treat burns, Cochlear implants, and vaccines to prevent cervical cancer. These are all impactful Australian inventions.

It’s very motivating to think that our research could make a real difference to the lives of thousands of Australians.

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

Heart Foundation funding through this Vanguard Grant will allow us to test promising new ideas, which could lead to larger scale studies in the future. This a new "home-grown" anti-inflammatory medicine.  This medicine has the potential to fill current gaps in treatment and improve the heart health of Australians.

I have had a long involvement with the Heart Foundation which started when I was still a University student in the 1980s. I was awarded a Heart Foundation Vacation Scholarship and spent my holidays working with Professor David Wilcken in his cardiovascular research laboratory at Prince Henry Hospital, Sydney.

Do you have a message for Heart Foundation supporters?

It is a genuine privilege to receive funding from the Heart Foundation, Australia’s largest non-government funder of heart-related research. This grant gives researchers like me (and our teams) the opportunity to transform innovative "out of the box" ideas into reality. I deeply appreciate the generosity of Heart Foundation donors for recognising the importance of cardiovascular disease research.  This will help us to find new treatments to help people to live longer, healthier and more productive lives.

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