6 March 2023

International student’s research takes NZ closer to treating heart disease


Researcher from Brazil Igor Felippe’s work to understand and treat triggers for high blood pressure could prove invaluable in helping treat cardiovascular disease, a serious health threat in New Zealand.

Igor’s PhD research at the University of Auckland is building a better understanding of how hypertension or high blood pressure is generated in the body so it can be managed with newer therapeutic treatments.

A fascinating finding of Igor’s research is understanding how blood pressure is triggered by abnormal activity of the carotid body, a tiny rice grain-sized organ between the carotid arteries in the neck that senses blood oxygen levels. The carotid body can control respiration and the cardiovascular system, which means it can influence how much blood vessels dilate or contract, thus causing high blood pressure if the vessels contract too much.

His research – published in the Cardiovascular Research journal of the European Society of Cardiology – recommends an effective treatment option for high blood pressure in such cases.

Given that high blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for cardiovascular disease and a major global problem affecting one in five New Zealanders (and one billion people globally), Igor’s research can help New Zealand make significant strides in combating cardiovascular ailments.

Igor though, thinks he was “really lucky” to get the opportunity to study his PhD in New Zealand in 2018. He was about to graduate with a Master’s in Pharmacy in Brazil when he had a chance meeting with Professor Julian Paton, the director of the Centre for Heart Research Manaaki Manawa at a conference, and Julian invited him to Auckland. He then gained a scholarship to do a PhD at the university.

“The opportunity [of the scholarship and PhD] was really good. Doing a PhD in New Zealand allows you to earn enough to make a living as you study, I was grateful for it.

“My overall experience [of studying a PhD in New Zealand] was very positive! The University of Auckland offers really good infrastructure with modern equipment that’s state of the art in research."

Researching for his PhD at the Centre for the Heart Research gave Igor the opportunity of meeting established and well-regarded names in the field of heart health research.

“Often we had guest lectures and visits from researchers outside the centre, including international researchers, which contributed a lot to our personal growth and learning,” Igor says.

He was also grateful to have a great supervisor and mentor in Prof Julian Paton.

“Julian is a brilliant researcher who challenges us with new ideas. He is humane and creates an environment that allows us to really be the best versions of ourselves. For me, he is more than a supervisor or mentor, he is a friend.” 

Igor has loved exploring New Zealand during his time here as well.

“It’s been great to be in this country. New Zealand is beautiful and being able to explore the country during my free time was amazing.”

There’s more to Igor’s story than plain luck, of course. There’s resilience, hard work and sheer grit to keep at it in the face of all odds. Growing up in Brazil, Igor and his mum grappled with financial challenges through his childhood. So the road to getting his PhD at the university’s December graduation ceremony has been a long, hard one.

Growing up in Vitoria, Igor recalls how his mum would make ends meet by baking pastries in the evening for him to sell the next day to help pay the bills.

“I would study in the morning from seven to noon, and then, in the afternoon, I would come home, warm up the pastries, put them in a thermal bag and I would walk around my neighbourhood, selling them to stores.”

Even during his time at the University of Auckland, Igor continued to achieve academically despite health challenges, winning six prestigious national and international awards in the last two years for his doctoral research.

When the pandemic started, Igor was diagnosed with an upper airways respiratory disease that affected his voice and required several surgeries. He had to go through them without family support. But he was glad he had a community of friends and colleagues in Auckland who rallied around him through that trying time.

Manaaki Manawa’s Dr Julian Paton describes Igor as a ‘rising star’ in research, who, despite the health setbacks, handed in his thesis on time.

“I have no words to stress how privileged and honoured I feel,” Igor wrote in the Acknowledgements section of his thesis.

The future is looking bright for Igor who is now working as a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Heart Research, following on from his PhD research. His research areas of interest are in the autonomic control of the cardiorespiratory system and its maladaptive responses in disease state.

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