Australian launch for world's largest screening project for atrial fibrillation

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The Heart Research Insitute’s Professor Ben Freedman, Dr Nicole Lowres and Dr Katrina Giskes have received a Medical Research Future Fund grant for a project designed to transform Australia’s stroke-related healthcare.

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common abnormal heart rhythm. It causes one in three strokes that are often severe and largely preventable. AF prevalence rises with age, affecting about 10 per cent of people aged 70 and over. It increases their stroke risk by five times.  

Unfortunately, one-in-10 people who experience a stroke were unaware they had AF. By detecting AF early with more intense electrocardiogram (ECG) screening, combined with treatment with oral anticoagulants, the risk of stroke can be reduced by 64 per cent.

“The MRFF grant couldn’t have come at a better time," said Professor Freedman from the Heart Research Institute and University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. 

"We will use the funds over the next five years to AF screen 70-year-olds and upwards, to provide definitive evidence if more intensive ECG screening prevents stroke, morbidity and death.

“The results will impact current screening guidelines to prevent stroke and improve stroke-related healthcare.”

The research project, known as SAFER-AUS, will run as the Australian extension of the UK SAFER study run by the University of Cambridge.

Plans are underway to recruit 36 general practices in three states for randomised testing for AF on a sample of patients aged 70 and over, using a novel Zenicor thumb-ECG device to record heart rhythm four times daily for three weeks. After recruiting a sample of their patients aged 70 or more, practices will be randomised to either the active screening or control arm to avoid bias.

Once a cardiologist diagnoses AF on a screening ECG, patients will be asked to visit their GP practice to discuss care and management. 

“This project will be the world’s largest randomised study of AF screening and brings together the brightest minds in the field of atrial fibrillation,” said Dr Nicole Lowres. “We are excited by the potential health impact this far-reaching research will have on everyday lives in Australia and the UK.”

The trials will be coordinated by the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre at the University of Sydney under the guidance of Professors Anthony Keech and John Simes.