Westmead cardiologist wins young investigator grant to study women’s heart disease

Westmead Hospital interventional cardiologist Sarah Zaman

Westmead Hospital interventional cardiologist Associate Professor Sarah Zaman will lead an Australian-first study into heart disease in young women.

Prof Zaman is a Heart Foundation Future Leader and one of only two researchers in Australia in 2020 who have been awarded the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand Bayer Young Investigator Grant – the most prestigious research award for young investigators.

Heart attacks are commonly known as a problem faced by middle aged or older men with high blood pressure or cholesterol. However, young and healthy women can also be at risk.

Forty per cent of heart attacks in women under 50 are caused by spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). It is a tear in the heart artery wall that can lead to obstruction of the blood supply to the heart, resulting in a heart attack. In some cases it can result in sudden death.

Prof Zaman said that while SCAD is traditionally uncommon, in the last decade it has become one of the most common causes of heart attacks in women under 50.

“As a result it has not been as extensively studied as other heart attack conditions,” Prof Zaman said.

“However, I have seen many women with SCAD who have come to hospital too late as a result of believing they couldn’t be having a heart attack.

“SCAD is not well recognised and that’s why it is so important to study it more.”

Prof Zaman in Westmead Hospital’s cath lab after performing an angiogram

Prof Zaman said that it is important to raise awareness among healthcare professionals and young women about SCAD.

“The most important thing for all women to know, are the warnings signs of a heart attack, and the knowledge that even young and healthy women can have uncommon causes for heart attacks,” she said.

“If you experience sudden chest pain and other heart attack symptoms, do not delay coming to emergency or calling an ambulance, in order to be assessed and treated.”

The study will involve more than 800 patients who have had SCAD to understand what triggered their first episode, how it can be better diagnosed, and to find preventative treatments.

Prof Zaman will collect information on ethnic differences of the condition, with the hope of improving care for all women with SCAD.

She said she believes there are genetic and hormonal factors that lead to some people developing it. 

“We have found connections in families and different genes that predispose risk for SCAD, and we have also seen that it overlaps with other rare conditions,” Prof Zaman said.

“In addition, we have found links between SCAD and female hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone.

“We are just beginning to understand some of these risk factors, and we certainly haven’t uncovered the full picture. In some cases SCAD still occurs completely out of the blue, without a family history or clear trigger.”

The research program will inform the development of clinical guidelines to ensure that patients are given the best treatment.