08 March 2016

Researcher to pioneer blood pressure treatment

WA Health researcher Markus Schlaich will be aiming straight for the jugular when he embarks on a trial to help patients with difficult-to-control high blood pressure.

But the Royal Perth Hospital renal physician and hypertension (high-blood pressure) specialist and his research team are hopeful their study will lead to a one-off treatment for the 10 per cent of high blood pressure patients who fail to respond to a combination of lifestyle changes and multiple medications.

High blood pressure puts people at increased risk of death and serious health problems such as coronary artery disease, kidney disease, stroke and heart failure.

Professor Schlaich is among 138 high-performing local researchers to have received a grant in the latest round of the State Government’s Medical and Health Research Infrastructure Fund (MHRIF) program.

He is just weeks from beginning the world’s first human trial of a novel procedure that will use therapeutic ultrasound waves to disrupt activity in an organ of the neck that is important in controlling blood pressure.

Though no bigger than a grain of rice, the carotid body consists of specialised nerve cells that monitor oxygen levels in the blood and send signals to the brain to regulate the cardiovascular system. Continuous overactivity of the carotid body has been associated with high blood pressure.

Professor Schlaich says that removing the carotid body is known to be safe and has been shown to be effective in lowering blood pressure because in decades gone, removal was used to treat breathlessness in respiratory patients.

In this trial however, we won’t be removing the body, but rather curbing its function using a process known as ablation,” he said.

Through an access point in the groin, trial participants will have a catheter inserted into the femoral vein. It will then be fed up into the jugular vein where it will zero in on the carotid body and, using ultrasound waves, disrupt its activity.

Professor Schlaich said many safe guards had been built into the procedure to minimise the risk to patients and that only those with high blood pressure that had not responded to positive lifestyle changes and multiple blood pressure-lowering medications were eligible for the study.

Professor Schlaich said that despite several advances in the treatment of hypertension, around 10 per cent of patients could not be controlled despite adequate combination of existing therapies.

If successful, this procedure will give both patients and physicians an alternative to managing treatment-resistant hypertension,” he said.

Professor Schlaich said it was not known whether the procedure would enable patients to manage their blood pressure medication-free or whether they would still need some medication to maintain optimal blood pressure over the long-term.

That’s one of the things we hope to learn from this study,” he said.

Western Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Gary Geelhoed said that if successful, the procedure would be an important breakthrough in the treatment of high-blood pressure – a condition that affected about a third of Australia adult population and cost the health system several billion dollars annually.

Professor Geelhoed said the project highlighted the important research being undertaken in WA by local researchers and clinicians.

The MHRIF was established in 1997 to promote excellence in medical and health research in WA by providing high-performing researchers with financial support to meet the day-to-day infrastructure costs associated with their projects.

Professor Schlaich will use his MHRIF grant to buy equipment that will be used to further analyse the findings of his study.


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