Meet the researcher: Dr Melissa Lee

Dr Melissa Lee is an early career clinician-researcher and holds an appointment of Honorary Fellow within the Heart research group at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI). Melissa is passionate about better understanding congenital heart disease and conducts research into one most common heart defects a baby can be born with - coarctation of the aorta. 

What was your journey to becoming a researcher in this field like?

I really fell into this area of research as a medical student, doing research with the cardiac surgery department at the Royal Children's Hospital. I started a project about coarctation (aortic narrowing) and became fascinated with the anatomy and physiology of these patients with very unusual heart conditions. I've carried this fascination through medical training into my clinical training, where I hope to become a congenital heart disease specialist.

Tell us about your research?

My predominant focus of research is looking into the outcomes of people with aortic arch conditions and particularly coarctation of the aorta. This is a condition where babies can be born with a narrowed aorta, which is the main blood vessel supplying blood from the heart to the rest of the body. As you can imagine when this vessel becomes narrow, the heart has to work harder in order to pump blood around the body. 

The main way we fix this is by doing heart surgery. However, we know that long term, people as young as teenagers can develop high blood pressure even when there is no ongoing narrowing seen in the aorta. Through my research, I've found that 60% of patients may develop high blood pressure by their early adult years, despite the vast majority of these patients not having ongoing narrowing in the aorta. 

What are you hoping to achieve through your work?

My ideal vision is to improve the long-term outcomes and lives of all people with congenital heart disease, whether its babies, children, or adults. Specifically, for coarctation, I would like to prevent high blood pressure developing and being optimistic, use genetic testing to identify babies who are most at risk of developing high blood pressure. This way we might be able to provide preventative treatment very early on in life. 

What excites you most about working in this field?

Now in particular due to improvements in science and technology, more and more patients who are born with congenital heart disease are surviving into adult hood. We have a rapidly growing population of patients who are now adults living with congenital heart disease and what excites me most is the number of unknowns for both them and myself. I'm very interested in finding out how these patients go throughout their lifetime. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself outside of MCRI. 

I am currently working as a Cardiology registrar at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. When I'm not at work, you'll find me enjoying coffee and brunch with my friends.