Student Profile - Andris Ellims

Andris Ellims has just completed his PhD in the Department of Medicine, and his research looked at Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy which causes the the heart muscle to thicken. His supervisor was A/Prof Andrew Taylor.

What is your research about?

I'm a cardiologist and what we've been looking at is a whole variety of heart conditions which people can get for various reasons, either inherited or otherwise, where the heart muscle is abnormal so the main pumping chain of the heart is abnormal We've using the MRIs here at The Alfred and Baker because we have a new model that gives a lot of information about the heart, which we haven't been able to get before without actually taking a piece of the heart muscle and analysing it under the microscope.

The main disease that I've been looking at is one called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy or HCM as the acronym. HCM is an inherited heart condition and it causes the heart muscle to get unusually thick. People can have no symptoms, but they can then develop symptoms or the first presentation can actually be sudden death. So it's the commonest cause of sudden death in young athletes. It has a big spectrum of who it affects and how it affects them, and it runs in families.

I've been using MRI to try and understand what the extra thickness actually means, why it occurs, and we can also use MRI to detect scar tissue in the thickening of the heart.

What interested you in this kind of research?

I originally did my training at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and with one year to go in my training to be a cardiologist, I was interested in imaging of the heart. I'm quite a visual person so being able to take pictures of the heart with an ultrasound, CT or MRI interested me, and The Alfred offered a position where I could learn all those things. During my supervision of MRIs, I became interested in the patients who had this thick heart muscle because some would have really thick heart muscle with no symptoms, some people would have a little bit of thickening and have a lot of scar tissue with symptoms, so the fact that this one condition could present in so many different ways interested me.

What are your plans now that you have completed your PhD?

The Baker has been known for looking after diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but the cardiovascular arm has been more of a preventative thing. What I've been doing is help set up a new cardiology service where we look after people who actually have heart conditions and it also has involved getting ultrasounds set up here, and the MRIs.

Back at The Alfred, a couple of years ago I set up Victoria's first clinical specific for this heart muscle condition. It's only the second in Australia and the first in Victoria. I really want to expand that, I'm the only cardiologist who sees all the patients, but we have a team of other people who are involved. I want to increase the capacity of that and increase the research into HCM. So that clinic is going to drive research and what I am planning to do, is use the new MRI which is at The Baker to do MRIs of family relatives of the people who have this condition, to see if we can learn more about the disease.

What do you do in your spare time?

My spare time is usually spent looking after my 9 month old son so that take up a lot of time! I also do try and play golf as well, but I think I'm more successful in being a father than a golfer at this stage.

What advice would you give someone who is about to start their PhD?

Firstly, only do a PhD if you're really interested in what you're studying, because it's a long time and if you're doing something that you're not interested in, no one is going to be a winner. I think the other bit of advice would be to really plan early, because even though three years seems like a long time, once you start actually working on it, it takes up that period of time really quickly.

Who were your supervisors and what did you like about them?

Andrew Taylor was my supervisor, so he's a cardiologist at The Alfred, but he's also involved in The Baker. Andrew is very approachable and he's got some great novel ideas. He was also supportive of any new ideas that I had, so we were able to incorporate some of my own thoughts or questions in the PhD which I think is rare.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

I'd have to say Rome, purely because I love the food and the culture. In Rome you can just turn the corner, and there's this ancient thing! I find it amusing that the locals just drive past The Colosseum and don't think twice about it.