Study to get to heart of gout risk

A State Government grant will boost a Perth researcher’s efforts to discover why people with a debilitating and very common form of arthritis are at double the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Gout is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis in the world and is caused by uric acid crystallising in the joints.

In Australia it affects about six per cent of the population, with intense joint pain (especially in the big toe) a common symptom.

But Helen Keen, a rheumatologist at Fiona Stanley and Royal Perth hospitals, reveals that while the causes of gout are well understood and the disease itself can be treated effectively with medication, the reason for patients’ heightened risk of cardio-vascular complications remains a mystery.

“Until we can establish the cause of this phenomenon, we have no way of reducing the significant risk of heart attack that exists for a substantial portion of our population,” Dr Keen says.

With two long-held theories (that it was due to patients’ high blood-urate levels or to chronic inflammation) having recently been disproved, Dr Keen will investigate an alternative explanation – that it is the result of acute inflammation that occurs during the gout attack itself.

As part of her research, Dr Keen will survey 30 years of WA hospital admissions, examining factors associated with heart disease in both gout patients and non-gout patients who have high blood-urate levels.

She will also look closely at how a potent anti-inflammatory drug affects patients’ hearts when used to treat acute bouts of gout. She will use CT scans of the heart for these assessments.

Dr Keen is one of 14 researchers awarded funding in the seventh round of the State Government’s Merit Awards program.

Merit Awards have been given annually to WA researchers who missed out on National Health and Medical Research Council grants but whose applications were deemed meritorious by the Council.

This year’s recipients are sharing in $1.33 million of Merit Awards funding.

The awards are designed to help local researchers strengthen their research applications so they can enhance their prospects of securing funding in future NHMRC funding rounds.

Applications can be strengthened in a variety of ways including by undertaking smaller preparatory studies.

Dr Keen said Australia had the second highest rate of gout in the world, with incidence of the disease rising along with our ageing and increasingly overweight population.

She said that nationally gout was responsible for around 12,000 hospital admissions a year, costing an estimated $60 million annually.

“The outcomes for people with gout, and the cost to the community are way worse than they should be,” Dr Keen says.

“Gout must be taken more seriously by health professionals and the community.”

Visit the WA Health website for the full list of 2019-2020 Merit Award recipients.

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