Matters of the heart: Why I pursued a career in heart research

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Researcher Bronwyn Brown is one of HRI’s longest-standing scientists. Here she speaks with Martha Tattersall about what inspired her to pursue a career in cardiovascular research.  

When Bronwyn was 13 years old and away at boarding school, she received a phone call that would change her life. Bronwyn’s mum phoned to say her dad was going in to surgery the next day.

Having suffered a heart attack, a specialist had found three blocked arteries around his heart. At just 44 years old, Bronwyn's dad was having bypass surgery. 

Instead of flying home to their farm on the NSW far south coast, Bronwyn flew to Melbourne to visit her dad in hospital. “In the ward, he was by far the youngest. He had nearly a full head of black hair. Everyone else was a lot, lot older, grey. Much, much older.” 

From that point, Bronwyn became fascinated with the heart and medical research.  

“We had to make a lot of dietary changes at home. I became a lot more interested in diet and what it could do to you."

"I then went on to finish high school and went on to do a biomedical science degree and really enjoyed the research projects that were offered so went for my honours and my PhD.” 

Bronwyn did an undergrad degree at the University of Wollongong, and completed her PhD at HRI through the University of Sydney. 

“One of the research projects I started in my undergrad at University of Wollongong was cardiovascular-based research with fish oils and omega-3 fatty acids, and I loved that.” 

At HRI, Bronwyn’s first project was working with the Free Radical Group, under former group leader Mike Davies. “I started to do work on the low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol) and what happens in patients with diabetes. I was fascinated with that and I asked to do a PhD on that project with him.” 

She is now in the Inflammation Group under the leadership of Clare Hawkins, where she continues to research low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and how particular oxidants that are formed under inflammatory conditions can modify LDL. “Generally, we find if LDL is modified by oxidation or inflammatory events it tends to make things worse, that is the bad cholesterol is more bad for you". 

“I’m also very interested in the cell types called macrophages – they're the ones that load up with fat in the artery walls and contribute to the artery getting narrower – and looking at what these inflammatory conditions do to LDL.” 

For Bronwyn’s father, whose heart problems are hereditary, advances in cardiovascular research have kept him alive.  

“With my father's case, the only way we can keep his cholesterol levels low is thorugh statins, cholesterol-lowerng medication. He’s one of those people who having a little bit of the special margarine and exercising more isn’t going to cut it.”

“He’d had high blood pressure and high cholesterol for quite a while before his heart attack and his father died of heart problems, so there’s a strong hereditary factor. From that I tend to have borderline high blood pressure if I don’t look after myself and my sister tends to have high cholesterol.” 

Since his heart attack, Bronwyn’s dad has gone back into hospital twice for angioplasty, a procedure to unblock and re-stent the blood vessel – something only possible thanks to advances in cardiovascular research. 

“For his surgery, they took a mammary artery from his chest, but they also took one of the leg veins and those veins failed, so he’s had angioplasty twice to clear that up,” she says.  

Knowing these heart conditions run in the family has had an impact on Bronwyn and her own daughter.  

“We try to eat well and look after ourselves. I’m trying to teach her what you need to eat to be healthy and strong. We need to look after ourselves.” 

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