Molecular geneticist recognised in prestigious Australian Academy of Science Awards

Monash University

An internationally renowned Monash researcher, whose work could change the way high blood pressure is treated, has been awarded the 2021 Gottschalk Medal by the Australian Academy of Science.

Associate Professor Francine Marques was awarded the Gottschalk Medal for her work on high blood pressure. The Gottschalk Medal honours the contributions to the medical sciences by the late Dr A. Gottschalk FAA.

About a third of Australians older than 18 have high blood pressure, with the incidence increasing with age. The blood pressure of most of these patients remains uncontrolled due to lack of treatment or poor response to currently available therapies. This is because often they don’t know they have the condition, which is also known a ‘a silent killer’ because of the lack of symptoms.

If left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to stroke, myocardial infarction, a stiffening of the arteries and the muscles of the heart leading to heart failure and aortic aneurysms, and a stiffening of the kidneys, reducing their function. It’s the most common risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Associate Professor Marques is currently leading a clinical trial funded by the National Heart Foundation to determine if dietary fibre supplements, which produce high levels of beneficial gut metabolites as a result of microbial fermentation, could be used as a new strategy to lower blood pressure.

One hundred trillion micro-organisms live within our gut, influencing our metabolism, our immune system and possibly even our mental health. Associate Professor Marques’ research has shown that the gut microbiota also drives our blood pressure in response to dietary fibre.

Her previous studies in mice have demonstrated that dietary fibre, particularly fibre that’s prebiotic, is able to prevent the development of high blood pressure and associated heart disease.

“Prebiotic fibre resists digestion until it reaches the large intestine, where it feeds those bacteria that are considered to have health benefits,” Associate Professor Marques said.

“Microbial fermentation in the gut releases metabolites, small molecules called short-chain fatty acids.

“Our research has shown that when mice are fed these short-chain fatty acids directly, their blood pressure lowers and their cardiovascular health improves. Conversely, diets low in fibre change the gut microbiota to one that drives an increase in blood pressure.”

The current trial is testing whether humans will respond in the same way.

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