A dream to 'close the gap' through science

Australian scientists have made an exciting discovery which could help “close the gap” when it comes to the health of indigenous children. Dr Laura Dagley’s impressive research has landed her a finalist for the 2016 Bupa Health Foundation’s Emerging Health Research Award.

Rheumatic heart disease is a killer, and it's often considered to be a third world disease. But the scary thing is, Australia has one of the highest rates in the world. It’s especially prevalent among young indigenous Australians living in the Northern Territory.

Dr Laura Dagley is going above and beyond to try to change that.

“Closing the gap in general is everyone’s responsibility. As part of this research we’d like to help focus our efforts on doing that.”

The 30 year old medical researcher admits she’s often working away at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) late into the night, and into the weekends, inspired and driven by her father. 

 Dr Dagley’s father is living with multiple sclerosis (MS). 

“He’s stable but he can’t walk very well. He can’t drive and he can’t leave the house on his own. It’s quite a horrible disease.”

It was her father’s illness that inspired her to pursue a career in medical research where she spent her PhD research trying to identify disease markers in MS. 

“He’s very proud of the work that I’m doing and has always been a great supporter of mine.”Laura Dagley working in the laboratory

Dr Laura Dagley working in the laboratory

Her focus has now shifted to identifying blood-based markers that can help identify people who have acute rheumatic fever (ARF) and RHD. 

Meet some of the children with rheumatic heart disease here.
Using the same cutting edge technology she used during her PhD research (proteomics and mass spectrometry), Laura and her team have been able to find a unique set of markers in the blood of Aboriginal children who have ARF, a condition  which can develop into the more life-threatening RHD. 
“We’re quite excited. So we’ve discovered a unique ARF disease ‘signature’ in the blood. It’s still early days and it’s going to take some validation. We’re making some headway in being able to find a signature that no one else has seen before.”
What this means is that it could one day lead to a test which could diagnose ARF using a blood sample – which means that children can be treated earlier, before  their acute rheumatic fever becomes full blown rheumatic heart disease.  
“There is currently no definitive test for diagnosing this infection, so if we’re able to identify a more reliable way of diagnosing ARF and RHD, then we can prevent children who have the condition, progressing to a stage when it becomes life-threatening."
Rheumatic heart disease kills around a thousand children every day.
Learn more about what it is and what causes it here.
Many children as young as 10 are being left with no option but to have open heart surgery. 
But there is hope. Dr Dagley’s research into the field has been so impressive, she’s one of the five finalists for the 2016 Bupa Health Foundation Emerging Health Research Award. 
The winner will receive $25,000 towards their research, the other four finalists will be awarded with $5000. 
Bupa Health Foundation Executive Leader Annette Schmiede said the Awards support the bright future of Australia’s health researchers to become global leaders.
“Supporting and funding emerging researchers is vital to our country remaining a leader in health research. If we want to safeguard and enhance that reputation it’s critical that we nurture these skills and expertise,” she said.
The winner will be announced on November 16th. 
For more information about the Bupa Health Foundation 2016 Emerging Health Researcher Awards, click here.
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