Kiwi scientists take on world
03 June 2003 Aucklandstuff

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In an international research breakthrough, New Zealand scientists have discovered the stomach plays a key role in trying to protect the body during a heart attack.

The internationally-renowned Christchurch Cardioendocrine Research Group will again make world headlines when the United States' Endocrinology Journal publishes its hormone research on obesity and heart attacks later this year.

A team of consultants and researchers, led by Professor Mark Richards at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, has broken new ground in the mad dash to pin down the exact function of the hormone ghrelin.

The team has discovered that ghrelin, the most potent human appetite stimulant known, also causes arteries in the heart to constrict.

Further research has revealed that during a heart attack, the stomach almost totally eliminates ghrelin from the system - giving the body its best possible chance of survival.

Research fellow Chris Pemberton said it was still not known if the stomach suddenly stopped the production of ghrelin during a heart attack, or if the ghrelin was simply flushed through the kidneys and out of the body at a higher rate.

"The heart has a problem, such as a blood clot, and it's somehow sending a signal to the stomach and the stomach thinks 'right, drop ghrelin' because it's the last thing (the heart) needs."

The team has also identified a related form of ghrelin which they have called C-ghrelin.

Its function is similar, but largely unknown.

However, research has shown C-ghrelin is more sensitive to heart attacks than ghrelin. This means there is potential for a diagnostic test to predict a looming heart attack.

The 50-strong Christchurch Cardioendocrine Research Group was set up in the mid-60s and earned international recognition for its hormone work that led to the development of a simple test to detect heart problems, piloted in Christchurch hospitals.

Dr Pemberton said ghrelin, an old Indonesian word meaning to grow, was one of the biggest discoveries in endocrinology (hormones) last century.

Since its 1999 discovery by Japanese scientists, there had been 392 publications on it in medical journals around the world. The findings of the Christchurch group would slot in as some of the most significant to date.

Christchurch Hospital endocrinologist Steve Soule, who is working alongside Dr Pemberton, said drug companies around the world were racing to make significant advances with ghrelin. The potential for a drug to curb the worldwide obesity problem was recognised by all involved. 

"If I were 33 again, young, fit and a bit of a dynamo as I think I was in those days, I simply wouldn't want to join the queue that is scrambling to get up the mountainside."

However, while it is easier than in Sir Edmund's day, climbing the world's highest mountain remains dangerous.

Over the years, 175 people have died -- including nine in one day in 1996 -- and many of their bodies remain frozen on the mountain. On Wednesday, two people died when a helicopter crashed as it came into base camp.

Fifty years ago, former Reuters correspondent Peter Jackson trekked for two weeks into the mountains to get the first interview with Sir Edmund and Tenzing. On Thursday, he recalled asking Hillary how he felt at the top.

"I felt bloody good," Sir Edmund said. "It was almost a surprise seeing the top, a firm snow cone forming a perfect summit." Hillary made Nepali citizen on Everest anniversary.