North-West University: Prof Mels working towards the prevention of future cardiovascular disease

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Following the completion of Prof Carina Mels’s postgraduate studies in biochemistry, she was offered the opportunity to start a lab at the Hypertension in Africa Research Team (HART), which she accepted, knowing that she had plenty of lab experience from biochemistry to draw upon. Her mentor at the time advised her to publish an article as soon as possible after obtaining her PhD, but she was challenged, as she found herself in a field very different from biochemistry, one where she did not necessarily know all the relevant terminology and concepts. She asked herself what she did know about heart disease and decided to write about the fatty acid metabolism as the heart’s main source of energy.

She realised that research exploring the relationship between fatty acid metabolism and the onset of cardiovascular disease had only been done in animals, so she decided to explore this relationship in humans. More specifically, she looked at the breakdown of fatty acid and whether it is related to high blood pressure. Her research for this article served as the foundation of her current research. She went on to write a second article on the breakdown of amino acid and its relationship to cardiovascular disease like high blood pressure, and soon realised that she was not only able to combine the two worlds of biochemistry and physiology, but that she was good at it and it was relevant, to say the least.

Her current research is centred around the detection of risk factors in children and young individuals that may lead to cardiovascular disease in later stages of life. The goal, of course, is prevention. Not everyone knows that cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest causes of disability and death. Health practitioners often advise us to follow healthy diets and exercise, but we do not realise the importance of doing so to preserve our cardiovascular health. We often do not feel sick, and therefore we do not deem it necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The problem is that patients with high blood pressure, for example, are often unaware of the condition. They only realise it when the condition reaches a completely avoidable and unnecessarily advanced stage where more serious symptoms or illness, such as stroke or heart attack, develop.

Prof Mels’s research investigates the earliest indicators in children and young adults that they are at risk of developing high blood pressure or other cardiovascular diseases later on. An effective way to do this, with biochemistry as base, is to look at the metabolism. A person’s metabolism involves the body’s breakdown of foods into minute particles, each of which has a very specific function to fulfil, for example, building protein structures such as collagen to ensure elasticity of the arteries, to mention only one. Prof Mels explores what changes can be made in these early stages to prevent heart disease and live longer, healthier lives.

Cardiovascular risk factors like smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, the early stages of diabetes, etc. are directly linked to how the metabolism processes food. One of Prof Mels’s studies shows that as little as one cardiovascular risk factor has an impact on a person’s health. This is perhaps not an immediately noticeable one, but the longer the risk factor is present, the greater the impact on the heart is later on.

The relevance of her research is clear and its aim is prevention. It is difficult to determine at what point it is too late for lifestyle and diet changes to effectively prevent future cardiovascular disease. In one study, it was found that the prevalence of masked hypertension (when you have normal blood pressure levels in a clinical setting, but elevated blood pressure while performing your normal day-to-day activities) ranged between 12% and 21% among young adults between 20 and 30 years of age. These participants were unaware of their condition. Young individuals tend to think that there is plenty of time to adopt a healthier lifestyle later on, but they are definitely mistaken. We need to live preventatively from the onset.

Prof Mels is extremely passionate about her research, but also about her role as supervisor and mentor to the new generation of researchers. “The most fulfilling part of what I do is giving back. I had an incredible mentor who was invaluable to me at the time. It is a huge responsibility, but I am honoured to fulfil that role in others’ lives and careers now,” she says. When asked to share one aspiration that she may have, she humbly answered that her goal is simply to live a well-balanced life, and to make a difference on a daily basis – academically and otherwise. She undoubtedly manages to do so through both her mentorship and her research.

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