The discovery was made by Dr Nathan Palpant and Professor Glenn King from the University of Queensland and Professor Peter Macdonald from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, who also worked on Ms Gribilas’ transplant.
Dr Palpant said the molecule blocked the “death signal” that was sent when cells underwent trauma.
“This molecule, known as Hi1a, is an inhibitor of a channel on the surface of heart cells … those channels get activated when there isn’t enough oxygen being delivered to the organ,” he said.
“When that happens a ‘death signal’ is sent to the cell, but we’ve been able to show if we deliver this drug developed from the funnel-web spider venom, it blocks that death response.”
Professor Macdonald said that meant donor heart tissue could be kept viable for much longer.
“Treating hearts with Hi1a and reducing cell death will increase how far the heart can be transported and improve the likelihood of a successful transplant,” he said.
“Usually, if the donor heart has stopped beating for more than 30 minutes before retrieval, the heart can’t be used – even if we can buy an extra 10 minutes, that could make the difference between someone having a heart and someone missing out.
“For people who are literally on death’s door, this could be life-changing.”
Dr Palpant said the drug would also have application for heart-attack patients, because heart attacks are often caused by heart cells not receiving enough oxygen, causing them to die.
Because heart cells do not regenerate, heart attacks can leave the heart scarred, which limits its function.
Giving the drug to patients who have just had a heart attack could help prevent some of that scarring by stopping the heart cells from deploying their death signal, allowing them to heal.
“This is a key opportunity for us to develop a new drug that we think has the ability to have significant impacts in these disease areas which are well out in front in terms of leading causes of death and morbidity internationally,” Dr Palpant said.
Ms Gribilas said she was astounded by the work the team had done, and encouraged everyone to be an organ donor if they could.
“People should be donors, for all the organs they can, because we have seen how much it changes people’s lives,” she said.
“I appreciate every minute – not every day, every minute – because I got a second chance, and what these doctors do is just wonderful.”
The team has tested the drug in a laboratory setting, and hopes to conduct clinical trials in the near future.
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