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Meaningful collaborations with heart

Unique research opportunities made possible
Charles Perkins Centre member and cardiologist, Dr John O'Sullivan, shares how his work has taken him from Ireland to Boston to Sydney.

For cardiologist and scientist Dr John O'Sullivan, his research and clinical work is made possible by meaningful and long-lasting collaborations. As the Cardiometabolic Disease Group Leader with the Heart Research Institute (HRI) and University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, and a senior lecturer from the University’s Central Clinical School and Sydney Medical School, his work in the unique space at the Charles Perkins Centre allows him to take a global approach to solving the issues that come from cardiometabolic disease.

Going global

Originally from Ireland, John trained in medicine and completed a PhD. His cardiology training required him to travel widely, culminating in a postdoctoral degree in Boston, close to where the famed Framington Heart Study took place, a study upon which he has drawn for his subsequent research. 

John was attracted to the University of Sydney by Professor David Celermajer and other prominent cardiologists in the Sydney Local Health District. The multidisciplinary metabolic focus of the Charles Perkins Centre was also a key attraction along with many Charles Perkins Centre research experts, who include theme lead Professor David James’s expertise in metabolomics, and Academic Director Professor Stephen Simpson’s in nutrition science. Along with HRI, this aligned well with his focus on cardio metabolic health. For John, both Professor James’s and Professor Simpson’s research has been invaluable in piecing together the primary puzzle – the link between metabolic disease and cardiovascular disease, particularly heart failure.

My collaborators at the Charles Perkins Centre enhance my research by providing allied expertise in closely related fields.
Dr John O'Sullivan

Research through collaboration

Since the 1970s, heart failure was defined by the heart losing its ability to pump. Thanks to modern drug therapies and tobacco cessation, heart failure is now termed as Stiff Heart Failure (SHF), a condition caused by the rising incidence of metabolic disease and associated with refined diets. It is this connection that drives John’s work thanks to Professor Simpson’s research into rodent dietary work, which showed mice developing Stiff Heart Failure as a result of the combination of high fat diets and high hypertensive stress.  

John is especially delighted that right in the Charles Perkins Centre building, the world’s largest heart biobank allows him to investigate SHF. The collaboration between surgeon and researcher, John’s work with Professor Paul Bannon – the Head of Cardiothoracic at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) and Chair of Cardiovascular Surgery at the University’s Central Clinical School – is unique in its ability to connect a surgeon and researcher. Not only is John able to access frozen heart tissue, but also live heart tissue from the left ventricle, as part of his research, keeping the slices alive for up to a week in order to examine how the tissue reacts to different agents.

The ability to keep this fresh heart tissue is the result of another collaboration between John and Dr Anna Waterhouse (HRI Fellow Award recipient and Charles Perkins Centre member), made possible with the unique opportunities made possible by the Charles Perkins Centre. Indeed, Anna has invented a 3-D printed device that keeps the heart tissue slices alive and allows modelling of the pumping.

Improving the heart through sleep

The Stiff Heart Clinic John created at RPA is uniquely well-resourced, and here, John has sought another collaborator: Charles Perkins Centre sleep expert Professor Peter Cistulli. Through this collaboration, clinic patients get a sleep apnea assessment. It has been found that hypertensive stress can cause oxidative stress, meaning those patients with more severe sleep apnea symptoms also have more SHF symptoms.

“I fulfil my mission in world-class facilities,” John said of working in the Charles Perkins Centre space. “It is all possible because of the local clinical and research expertise here and in the Local Health District, including the metabolomics, clinic, availability of fresh heart tissue, and the heart bank. My collaborators at the centre enhance my research by providing allied expertise in closely related fields.”