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Where a brave heart can lead you

Dr Jun Zhang – Queensland Micro and Nanotechnology Centre, Griffith University
Audrey Walker – Mount Gravatt State High School
Angelina Tan – Mount Gravatt State High School
Sachi Lifton – Mount Gravatt State High School

Dr Danielle Kamato is going straight to the heart of one of Australia’s prominent illnesses – heart disease. She is a researcher and lecturer at the School of Environment and Science, Griffith University and a Research Leader at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Griffith University.

Due to war’s interference in Lebanon, Dr Kamato and her family fled to Australia when she was a child. Despite enduring a tumultuous and war-torn childhood in Lebanon, she refused to be defeated by life’s hardships. Instead, she not only persevered and survived but also flourished and exceled. Experience and family have shaped Dr Kamato’s career, alongside years of hard work and chasing dreams. “There’s always opportunities if you look for them,” said Dr Kamato.

Heart disease is the highest cause of death in Australia, and many Australians will face this harsh reality at some point in their life. The importance of this is not lost on Dr Kamato – as a child, she wanted to be a heart surgeon to help family members suffering from heart conditions. While she changed her mind after fainting at the sight of her sister’s blood, she never grew out of that desire to help others. Now, her research aims to prevent heart conditions and to help families and people struggling to live with heart disease. Dr Kamato’s research is highly regarded, as evidenced by her being awarded a Future Leader Fellowship from the Heart Foundation.

Dr Kamato’s research leads down a different pathway to conventional treatments. Her research aims to manage heart disease by stopping its onset. In a blood vessel, cholesterol and fat can get caught on ‘sticky molecules’ expressed by the vessel’s cells. Cholesterol will continue to collect on these sticky molecules silently over many years, eventually blocking the artery and leading to a heart attack or stroke.

“Consider walking across a lawn with short grass versus through a forest. In the forest, you can get caught on undergrowth and stray branches. The lawn, while sticky, won’t stop you walking. As these ‘sticky molecules’ grow, it turns the lawn into a forest, meaning cholesterol molecules get caught and cause the build-up of fat and plaque in your blood vessels,” said Dr Kamato.

Why does this stickiness occur, and what can be done to prevent buildup in arteries? Dr Kamato’s research goes to the heart of this issue on a cellular level.

Her aim is to develop a drug that pre-emptively targets and prevents the growth of sticky molecules. Recent successful animal trials provide hope of targeting the sticky molecules as a new therapeutic strategy and more studies are on the way. She hopes that her work can lead to a new and affordable therapy that can be used as a preventative and be accessible to all Australians. Another area of her research looks at finding new indicators that predict people’s likelihood of a heart attack – recent Australian clinical data reveals that >25% of heart attacks occur in people with no traditional risk factors.

While Dr Kamato has put years of research into her work, she emphasised the impact that collaboration with others has in this industry, including groups who offer expertise in related topics and her team members.

“One of the brightest parts of my day is seeing my team members walk in with a smile on their faces after getting exciting new results,” said Dr Kamato.

Dr Kamato is making a difference in the way we treat heart disease, in a job that facilitates her passion for family and biomedical science. She has demonstrated a brave and kind heart, using her contribution in medical research to improve life for her family and many others. She advises aspiring scientists to pursue a career that sparks their curiosity and interest. She says, “While a career is not forever, a lot of days will be spent doing your job, so you have to do something you love and have passion for.”

Judges’ Feedback

“The authors did a good job proving impact with what I thought was difficult subject matter and research.”

“Excellent flow. I particularly enjoyed the way the article explained a complex medical issue in simple, engaging terms.”

“I think you communicated complex scientific phenomena in a clear and engaging manner, and I liked how you used the word ‘heart’ as the central theme throughout as well.”