Leveraging the science of hibernation to improve human heart health

Discovering new ways to treat heart and lung diseases by tapping into the natural disease resistance of hibernating animals is the focus of a new partnership between Monash University and US biotechnology company Fauna Bio.

Hibernation requires mechanisms of self-healing and tissue repair to endure long periods of time in freezing temperatures without food. The thirteen-lined ground squirrel hibernates for about six months and has the remarkable ability to endure physiological events that replicate many aspects of heart attacks and strokes in humans.

Through the research partnership, Monash’s Victorian Heart Institute (VHI) and Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) will evaluate novel drug targets identified through the examination of the hibernating animal genomics by Fauna Bio.

The initial in vivo research is aimed at finding new breakthroughs in repairing the stiffening and enlarging of the blood vessels and tissue in the heart and lungs. These are common factors in cardio-respiratory diseases including heart failure, pulmonary hypertension and pulmonary fibrosis.

Pulmonary hypertension and fibrosis are rare lung diseases that scar and stiffen the lungs, making breathing difficult.  Whilst there are a handful of medical treatments for these diseases, they are mainly focused on symptom management, rather than fixing the underlying condition. As a result, the conditions are terminal, and there has been a 20 per cent increase in cases in the last decade.

Victorian Heart Institute Director Professor Stephen Nicholls says despite excellent progress and a slowing of the rates of death and disability from these diseases, permanent structural changes in the blood vessels, heart and lungs occur due to a variety of cardiothoracic disorders. These changes lead to symptomatic heart and lung disease and nearly always result in a shortened lifespan.

“Working with Fauna Bio, we have an opportunity to bring in new information about how animals survive these same conditions and discover better ways to treat heart and lung diseases in humans,” says Professor Nicholls.

Dr Kristen Bubb, a research leader in the field of novel vascular therapeutics at the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) says Fauna Bio has been able to identify genetic targets and compounds that warrant further preclinical testing.

“We are underway with preclinical testing on some drugs already available.  However, drug repurposing still requires extensive research as we seek to understand how the drug moves through the body, the correct dosage and its effect on lung and heart injury,” said Dr Bubb.

Fauna Bio’s proprietary platform, Convergence, has already identified and validated, both
in vitro and in vivo, two compounds that may be effective in reducing damage after a heart attack, and four novel genes in hibernating mammals key to heart protection and recovery from cardiac events, including heart attacks and strokes. In addition, they have identified seven novel genes and five compounds that can reverse fibrosis in human cell models.

“As an industry, we have to continue to innovate and seek out new data sources to find answers for diseases that currently lack effective treatments, such as cancer and heart disease,” said Ashley Zehnder, DVM, PhD, Chief Executive Officer of Fauna Bio.

“Utilising Monash University’s expertise in cardiorespiratory disease combined with our unique approach to comparative genomics gives everyone a fresh perspective on the challenges and opportunities, and provides a streamlined path to the clinic for positive programs.”