Heart and lung health research beyond borders

lung health research

When Professor Simon Stewart was 13 years-old, his father tragically died of illness. This life-changing event became the catalyst that propelled him into a career where he found himself in search of the solution to sickness.

Starting out as a cardiovascular nurse, Professor Stewart was soon questioning “whether there were ways we could do things better.” That led him on a path of research – a journey that’s taken him from Alice Springs to Africa. 

Professor Stewart is now the Director of the Centre for Cardiopulmonary Health where he leads a team of researchers who work on innovative strategies to improve the heart and lung health of vulnerable individuals and communities – no matter where they are in the world. 

Health for all of humanity

When it comes to early disease and early death, like in the case of Professor Stewart’s own father, he says, “it's usually people from poorer circumstances, it's people from poor countries who bear the brunt most.”

He experienced this first-hand while working with Australia’s Indigenous community across town camps in the Red Centre– and then found commonalities in vulnerable populations around the world.  

In Mozambique, where one of his recent research projects is grounded, Professor Stewart uncovered a socio-economic and environmental threat that was a key health-damaging culprit – indoor air pollution. 

“Nearly every household that we've come across in these poverty-stricken areas have to use horrible fuel to heat and cook. They have to burn wood and charcoal and other contaminants that destroy their lungs.”

“We're trialling a more efficient fuel that gives off less fumes and damages the heart and lungs less.”   

Professor Stewart is a fierce advocate of improving the health and lives of everyone. He says while certain sections of society end up “being the weakest link in terms of our health chain” we should be “exposing those weaknesses and supporting the vulnerable.”

“I'm a sucker for providing a better future for the millions of children I see who are facing an uncertain future.”  

Healing the heart 

The work that Professor Stewart does has had a direct and profound impact on the communities he’s worked with. His research has led to effective programs and interventions that make a real difference, particularly when it comes to heart care. 

Professor Stewart is now internationally recognised as a leading voice in how to respond to the epidemic of chronic heart disease across the globe. 

The heart is undoubtedly our most important organ. In fact, it’s often described as the engine room of our bodies. 

Professor Stewart’s latest research has identified a new threshold for proactive treatment for Aortic Stenosis, a disease of the main valve in the heart. 

“There are now trials underway based on NEDA, the National Echo Database of Australia to determine whether or not replacing a valve earlier, in the heart of Australians with this valve disease, gives them benefits.”

“More and more people will present with this problem and will die from it without active intervention.”

Professor Stewart says he’s, “quietly confident that [the treatment] will actually save lives in the future.”

Losing his heart to Africa  

For quite sometime, Professor Stewart has held an enduring heart connection with Africa. Back in 2008, while working with the largest hospital in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg in South Africa, he was able to bust a medical myth.  

“We ended up examining the heart health of over 15,000 Africans. We had a row of three echocardiographic or ECG machines and a team of nurses and doctors.”

His findings would become known as the Heart of Soweto study, now world-famous and featured in the medical journal, the Lancet

“Up to that point, most people said heart disease and hypertensive heart disease, and other forms of disease were rare in Africans – and Heart of Soweto told us something different.”

The data from that study has become vital for informing effective prevention and health-care service planning. 

Through his work in Africa, Professor Stewart has noted one important lesson –that developing healthy solutions and tackling health problems worldwide requires international researchers to work closely with local communities and health professionals – and to understand their needs.

“When you engage with a community, you're engaging with everyone. So, there's a higher level of trust needed and there needs to be continuance.”

“What we aim to be is good collaborators. When someone has a good idea, no matter where it's been generated from, we support that.” 

“You ask the researchers, the local community, what do you need from me? And then you focus on that,” reveals Professor Stewart.   

Listen to Research That Matters to hear more about the research projects of Professor Simon Stewart in Episode 2: Collaborations across nations and institutions

Research That Matters, is a 9-part podcast series featuring researchers from Torrens University Australia, who are working to solve complex global problems and to propel innovation. Hosted by Clement Paligaru and produced by Written & Recorded.

Find all episodes of Research That Matters at https://www.torrens.edu.au/research/research-that-matters-podcast

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