Transforming the treatment of Hepatitis C with world first digital therapeutic

Suong Le stands in front of some greenery, smiling in an orange dress with her hands clasped together.

A Monash Health clinician researcher is about to revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat Hepatitis C by building a first of its kind digital therapeutic.  

Associate Professor Suong Le has been awarded a $250,000 fellowship to create the life-saving device which will help treat and diagnose Hepatitis C from home.  

Her idea was chosen over many other submissions by the Australian Department of Health’s Researcher Exchange and Development within Industry (REDI) initiative, which helps build an industry-ready workforce with the skills necessary to keep pace with a rapidly changing sector. 

“I feel honoured and humbled as it was a really competitive process,” Associate Professor Le said.  

Associate Professor Le is a consultant gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Monash Health and pitched an idea to build a digital therapeutic a high quality and evidence-based piece of software used to treat a specific disease– to be a one-stop-shop for all things Hepatitis C. 

“There are 130,000 Australians living with Hepatitis C, who have yet to be diagnosed or cured,” she said. 

“The role of this digital therapeutic will be to help us efficiently screen the population, diagnose and cure them from Hepatitis C in order to prevent future complications such as liver failure, cancer and the need for a transplant.” 

Hepatitis C is a blood borne virus that can be transmitted through many ways including blood transfusion, older medical and dental procedures, tattoos and sexual transmission.  

“The difficulty we have is that it’s a highly stigmatised condition and is often associated in the public with people who inject illicit substances, but it can affect anyone,” Associate Professor Le said.  

The disease often doesn’t have symptoms and must be diagnosed via a blood test, but in the later stages fatigue, itchiness, yellowing of the skin and eyes, and mood disturbances are common.  

“It’s important people do get diagnosed as we now have medications that can achieve an 80 to 95 per cent cure rate, and if left too long, it can cause liver damage, liver failure and liver cancer” she said. 

Associate Professor Suong Le stands with Professor Bill Sievert, Director, Clinical Research and Associate Professor Sally Bell, Director of Gastroenterology who she thanked for supporting her in obtaining the fellowship.

While similar digital therapeutics have been introduced in the United States to treat diabetes and depression, it will be the first application of the software in Australia and the first worldwide to focus on Hepatitis C.  

It will allow patients to easily access help from the comfort of their own homes by helping them find their nearest healthcare provider, generate pathology forms, provide medication scripts and support them through to the completion of their treatment.  

“It will act as a disease navigator that holds the patients’ hands from diagnosis to cure,” Associate Professor Le said. 

“Patients find it hard and arduous to navigate the current healthcare system and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds experience additional barriers – this new system of digital therapeutics will dismantle those barriers and help people get the treatment they need from within their home and reduce the stigma associated with the disease.” 

Associate Professor Le was inspired to create the specialised digital product for Hepatitis C, which she’ll be working on with healthtech company Planet Innovation, after noticing a high volume of patients who had been living silently with the disease in the community before developing symptoms and or complications. 

“When we noticed this gap we wondered how we can close it and help our community understand they should not be afraid of getting tested, particularly given our access to curative treatment,” she said. 

“Going through COVID-19 also really got me thinking about the healthcare system and how it won’t stay the same – the silver lining is that it’s forced us to be more agile and adaptable and think about how we deliver care beyond the bricks and mortar model we’ve always had. 

“We need to start looking at how we can adapt new healthcare service delivery options, enabled by technology, that prioritise patient experience and outcome.” 

She wanted to thank Associate Professor Sally Bell, Director of Gastroenterology, Professor Bill Sievert, Director, Clinical Research and Dr Anjali Dhulia, Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director, Medical Services for their support and mentorship. 

“It’s a significant sacrifice to let a senior clinician step away during a pretty difficult time in the healthcare system to further her own professional and personal development, and I hope it reaps rewards and is beneficial to Monash Health and the broader community,” she said. 

“I am really excited and it’s a great opportunity to be mentored by industry leaders.”