Gillian Murtagh talks to PharmaTimes about her role at Abbott  and passion for helping cardiac patients

What is your background and current role?

I am a cardiologist and associate medical director in the global medical and scientific affairs group for Abbott’s diagnostic business. I received my medical degree from Trinity College Dublin in 2003, then trained around the world including in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam and the US.

Currently, I oversee research studies that look at how biomarkers can help address cardiac disease. In this role, I travel globally to educate physicians about cardiac disease and potential improvements in patient care that biomarkers can provide.

Where does your passion for healthcare come from and what drives it?

I come from a long line of pioneering physicians who happen to be female. My grandmother, Dr Nora McGarry, was one of the first female primary care doctors in the west of Ireland. My mother continuously cares for patients.

While I had a fascination with this field, I was also quite alternative growing up and didn’t want to be a doctor. I was into alternative music and had bright red hair. I didn’t fit the medical student mould. Yet, I was inspired by Scully in the X-Files – not just a doctor, but also a strong FBI agent. I realised that I could pursue a career in medicine, without sacrificing my individuality.

Why the particular interest in cardiology?

While I was a medical student, I saw several women with breast cancer develop heart failure due to their treatment. This doesn’t always happen but I felt there had to be better ways to identify cardiovascular disease earlier in these patients.

The clinical experience I received during my eight years of dedicated cardiac training makes a big difference in how I approach the research we do day-to-day.

What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on in your career and why?

One of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on is the research and education around one of Abbott’s blood tests, the High Sensitive Troponin-I test. To determine a person’s risk of developing future heart disease, physicians currently use several general health factors, such as cholesterol levels or blood pressure. Yet, a substantial amount of research has shown that this High Sensitive Troponin-I test could be added to these health factors to more accurately predict if someone is going to have a cardiac event, such as a heart attack, potentially years before symptoms occur. That is because this test is cardiac-specific, providing a direct signal from the heart. It has the potential to be used during a general health exam to help find hidden risk in people who appear healthy. That could have an impact on millions of people globally. Currently, this test is approved for predicting risk in patients in this way in Europe and Asia.

Can you outline the potential benefits of early intervention screening for cardiovascular conditions?

Despite cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of death, research has found that up to 75% of these deaths are preventable. The more accurate physicians can be and the earlier they can intervene to help people prevent heart disease, the bigger impact we can make.

One group in particular that can benefit from earlier intervention screenings is women. Women don’t always realise they are at risk for heart disease. The blood test I mentioned earlier is one technology that could help. Women often have lower levels of troponin protein than men. Having a highly sensitive blood test could help more accurately identify a woman’s risk of future heart disease potentially years in advance, as well as diagnosing heart attacks in the Emergency Department.

What are the key challenges to overcome to help realise this promise, particularly in the UK?

One key challenge is raising awareness of the disease, the impact it has on both men and women, and that in many cases it is preventable. I think there’s also a need to raise awareness that the current tools used to predict risk for cardiac disease aren’t always accurate. The High Sensitive Troponin-I blood test is a simple blood test that can be added by doctors to their current tools to provide more accurate prediction.

While this is a new test that received CE marking last year, new innovations often take a while to reach the people who really need it, which is why education and awareness are critical.

Another challenge is compliance. In many cases, heart disease can be prevented if identified early on and managed through lifestyle changes and medication. Yet sticking to those lifestyle changes, such as good eating and regular exercise, can be difficult. We would hope that since this troponin blood test is a direct signal from the heart, this information could serve as a wake-up call to people to make changes.

How might healthcare companies and the NHS work more closely together to help improve the picture of cardiovascular disease in the UK?

It is imperative that healthcare companies work together with the NHS to bring new innovations to people in the UK. But these innovations must be based on a substantial body of evidence. For example, Abbott’s High Sensitive Troponin-I test has been studied in more than 100,000 patients to show the benefit it can have in helping doctors predict a person’s future risk for developing heart disease.

Making innovations like this broadly available has the potential to impact millions of lives, as every adult is at risk for developing heart disease.

What does the future hold for cardiology? What innovations do you believe will make a real difference in the fight against cardiovascular disease?

We are going to have a paradigm shift in how we address heart disease by combining new technologies, in particularly the benefits of artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain, with the latest advancements of science.

Take troponin blood tests for example. A recent study showed that an algorithm, developed by my company Abbott using machine learning, could help doctors better determine if a person was having a heart attack or not. It did so by combining the variables that are most predictive for heart attack: a person’s age, sex and troponin levels (using the High Sensitive Troponin test) over time.

In the future, you could imagine using this technology to develop algorithms that help doctors not only better determine if someone is having a heart attack or not, but potentially intervene years before a heart attack occurs in people who appear healthy.

What are your passions outside of work?

Horse riding has been a passion of mine all my life, and I continue to jump competitively. I stay up-to-date on alternative music and attend rock and metal concerts when I can.

What keeps you awake at night?

I am currently pregnant so that is keeping me awake most nights. But on a more serious note, I am always thinking about ways we can better help cardiac patients – both for current and future generations. I think about how to continue moving the field forward towards prevention in ways people haven’t thought about before. I think back to those oncology patients who experienced heart failure during their treatments. It’s things like this that I get to think about in my job at Abbott. How can we create connections among things that don’t seem correlated and improve them? How can we push the boundaries of what’s possible as we look to tackle heart disease from treatment to prevention?