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Dr Melissa Farnham has been awarded a Kirby Foundation grant to research how obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) causes disease.

OSA is a form of irregular breathing during sleep affecting up to 30 per cent of adults, but Indigenous populations and women are grossly underdiagnosed. The majority of people with high blood pressure, diabetes or heart failure also have OSA, but new treatments for OSA are hampered by a lack of understanding of how OSA drives development of these comorbidities.

Dr Farnham’s team has uncovered evidence strongly pointing to the involvement of certain brain chemicals called neuropeptides in the disease process. The role of these brain chemicals released under conditions of stress, such as OSA, are virtually unexplored. This grant will enable further investigation into this groundbreaking discovery to establish its potential for future diagnostic and treatment strategies.

OSA is an insidious disease that can go undiagnosed for many years and can have consequences that affect many facets of a person’s life,” explains Dr Farnham.

“Worryingly, OSA does not affect all people equally. Women with mild OSA have more symptoms but are less likely to be diagnosed and treated, while Indigenous Australians are more than twice as likely to have OSA and associated diseases compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts.”

One barrier for diagnoses is access to specialised equipment and sleep centres. To address this, Dr Farnham’s team is investigating the potential of a simple blood test for identifying certain chemicals produced by the brain as a diagnostic tool.

Current OSA therapies also require expensive equipment, which disadvantages vulnerable populations, so new treatments such as medicines are of paramount importance, as they are more accessible to the broader population.

This is an exciting time in our research. If this brain chemical represents a therapeutic target, we could potentially develop the first OSA medicine to specifically improve cardiometabolic health,” says Dr Farnham.

“Our work has the potential to transform how we treat patients by leading to more personalised treatment or preventative treatment, thereby improving their quality of life.”

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