Waikato Hospital’s Respiratory Research team. Left to right: Gail Ritchie (administration) Sandra Hopping (study coordinator), Dr Hollie Ellis (registrar), Chris Tuffery (study coordinator), Dr Cat Chang (principal investigator). Absent: Dr Miriam Bennett (Research Fellow)
Waikato Hospital’s Respiratory Research team is small in global terms but punches well above its weight in reputation and results.
In fact, the unit is one of the first in the world to gather the supporting evidence that clearly shows the link between chronic respiratory disease and heart health.
The team has been working on improving the understanding of the interaction of heart and lungs in people with chronic respiratory disease. This has been done through a number of different trials exploring the connection between respiratory disease and abnormal blood tests (which indicate strain on the heart), ultrasound imaging of heart size and function, and the impact on patient outcomes.
Currently the focus is on what treatment might help.
“Each trial in this respiratory research programme contributes to our knowledge of how chronic respiratory disease (COPD) affects not only the lungs but also the heart, and it builds up a picture of how lung function affects heart function. In turn, this may lead to finding ways of treating it,” says respiratory specialist Dr Cat Chang.
Its success is leading to additional research exploring how to increase access to crucial heart medications in the asthmatic population who often miss out on these treatments. This is a 12-month study led by research fellow Dr Miriam Bennett.
The unit started up in the 1990s, one of the first respiratory research units to be established in New Zealand, and initially had just one part-time research nurse. It now has two full-time research nurses, up to two research fellows, administration support, and the voluntary commitment of Dr Chang.
It is a non-profit unit that carries out both sponsored research as part of international studies for commercial medication and drug development, and grant-funded research for its own or collaborative research, usually from NZ funding bodies for Waikato-specific or New Zealand-wide trials in collaboration with other New Zealand research centres.
Over the years the unit has contributed to many internationally important clinical trials that have changed the treatment of asthma, COPD, bronchiectasis, and pneumonia. It is currently supporting a 36-month Waikato University research study by senior lecturer in psychology Dr Timothy Edwards and thesis student Margaret Crawford to see if and how “sniffer dogs” can be used for lung-cancer screening. More than 200 patients attending Waikato Hospital’s respiratory clinic have so far given breath and saliva samples for Edwards’ research project.
“We are regarded internationally as one of the go-to respiratory research centres in New Zealand,” Dr Chang says. “Most of the bigger international studies will come to us but we look at each one carefully. Our participation in sponsored studies is ethically based. We ask the key question: What will be the benefit for our patients, not just during the trial but if possible afterwards?”
The output from this small but dedicated team is impressive but there would be no research output without the enthusiastic participation of so many people willing to be study subjects. If you have lung disease or are interested to hear more about the respiratory research department’s work, then please get in touch with them at Waikato Hospital on 07 8398899 ext 98070.