Unmasking new solutions for sleep apnoea

Nearly 1 billion people globally, including 1 million Australians, have obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) and more targeted treatments are ‘urgently needed’ to reduce the costs and health impacts, say Flinders University experts.

OSA, or repetitive upper airway closure during sleep that restricts breathing and is usually accompanied by snoring, has major adverse health, safety and economic impact.

Even with established interventions such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), these problems might not resolve.

To find better, more effective, individually targeted treatments for people with OSA, Australian Federal Government funding of more than $2 million has been awarded to Flinders University Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health researchers and collaborators.

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator Leadership grant awardee and Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health Director, Professor Danny Eckert, says a range of issues means OSA is often untreated, and more than 50% of people cannot tolerate long-term use of the main treatment, CPAP.

In all, sleep disorders and inadequate sleep cost Australia more than $65 billion per year, and sleep apnoea is the most common, says Matthew Flinders Fellow Professor Eckert.

“New treatments are urgently needed, and we’re aiming to use and develop novel approaches to identify the causes of OSA on a per patient basis, improve current therapies and management approaches and test if new targeted therapies can be used to treat OSA,” he says.

“Current diagnosis, treatment and management of OSA are imprecise, are cumbersome, time-consuming, costly and are failing too often because they don’t take into account the differences in the ways people get OSA and the different ways it can present.”

Not all sleep disorders are suited to CPAP. Photo: Shutterstock.

Professor Eckert says his long-running research work takes a four-pronged approach to achieve much-needed improvement in this area of medicine, to:

  • Understand the different underlying causes of OSA to identify targets for therapy for each patient;
  • Develop simplified yet more informative clinical tools to fast-track the diagnosis process and inform suitable, targeted treatment solutions for individual patients;
  • Improve existing non-CPAP treatments such as dental devices and develop new drug interventions;
  • Test the efficiency of new therapies, including combination therapies, to treat OSA.

OSA is the most common breathing related sleep disorder, restricting breathing to cause low oxygen levels (hypoxemia) and sleep disruption.

Untreated OSA increases the risk for heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes, impaired cognitive function, cancer, depression, sleepiness, motor vehicle accidents and injury, and all-cause mortality.

The Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health at Bedford Park is a high-tech centre at Flinders University with a six-bed clinical research facility run by a multidisciplinary team of more than 50 researchers with a broad range of expertise in clinical medicine and allied health (sleep, respiratory, dentistry, nursing, speech pathology, and psychology), biomedical engineering and various disciplines of science.

Flinders University is leading an Australian Government NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Clinical Sleep Services project to expand GP and primary care treatment for the sleep epidemic across the nation.

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College of Medicine and Public Health