A dud hormone gets to the heart of its value

The Age    |    8 November 2012

No longer will it be dismissed as “the dud hormone”.   As of today a synthetic version of relaxin — a hormone first described in 1929 — is the key ingredient in a new class of medicine for acute heart failure that has been shown to improve symptoms and reduce deaths among sufferers.

 Now retired, Professor Tregear, 71, began his relaxin research in Melbourne in 1975.  And while he knew the hormone was important, it took decades to prove it.

 “There was always people asking ‘why are we still working on relaxin, it doesn’t do anything’,” he said.

 With patience and perseverance, Professor Tregear and his Howard Florey Institute colleagues set about establishing the chemistry and biology of relaxin, a member of the insulin family.  They were the first to isolate the genes that code relaxin and the first to make it artificially, allowing scientists to explore it.

Made in the ovaries, the hormone is critical for the maintenance of pregnancy because it has a positive effect on the heart, vascular system and kidney function. Professor Tregear said the hormone is also found in semen — and it may mean it enhances sperm movement.

“In the human relaxin is playing this really critical role in the early stages of life and now we are using it pharmacologically at the other end of life where your heart is failing because you’re getting too old,” he said.

He said there was potential for treatment of other conditions because relaxin breaks down scar tissue and this ability could be applied to damaged organs such as the lungs and kidneys.

Phase three trial results of the Novartis drug, outlined in The Lancet on 7 November  2012, showed the drug improved symptoms and reduced deaths in patients with acute heart failure by one-third after six months.

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