A Christchurch research group that first discovered a hormone predicting heart failure has patented a test that could identify patients with pneumonia and a fragile heart.

When patients come to the emergency department (ED) with chest pain or shortness of breath, it could be a life-threatening condition. A fast, accurate diagnosis is imperative for patients to get the best care.

The University of Otago’s Christchurch Heart Institute (CHI) is a world-leader in developing the tools to improve such vital decision-making.

In the 1990s, the institute was the first to recognise that a hormone in the blood could identify heart failure. The institute developed a test and guidelines for doctors which are now used in hospitals around the world.

They have since developed several more promising initiatives. One is a test that could diagnose pneumonia that complicates heart failure – a critical piece of information for a patient’s treatment – and it came about by chance.

Associate Professor Chris Pemberton, who leads the CHI team involved, says they were studying the potential of a new hormone to diagnose patients arriving in emergency departments with acute coronary syndromes such as a heart attack or unstable angina. It didn’t work for those conditions – but it did for detecting people with pneumonia and heart failure.

“There are good tests to diagnose heart failure but not pneumonia,” Pemberton says. “People can come to ED with both conditions, and both need quite different treatments. Someone with undiagnosed pneumonia on top of heart failure can get the right drugs for heart failure but their condition still deteriorates. “Our test could potentially identify those most at risk from having both conditions.”

Pemberton says there is a real need for rapid tests for pneumonia because other methods, such as chest x-rays, aren’t always clear and can take a long time to confirm. Furthermore, the numbers of people with both pneumonia and heart failure are growing – “and we need to deal with that.”

The blood test has so far shown promise in a trial of 500 Canterbury patients. As a result, the researchers patented it with commercial partners Upstream Medical Technologies, and are now testing it on a much larger group. This evidence will be needed before they can market the test to hospitals globally.