Prestigious awards for Monash Health gastroenterologists

Two Monash Health gastroenterologists have received prestigious awards for their commitment to the specialty, especially in research into ground-breaking stem cell therapy.

The Gastroenterological Society of Australia awarded the Distinguished Researcher Prize for 2022 to Professor Bill Sievert, Interim Program Director, Research Strategy, while Dr Charlotte Keung received the Young Investigator Award (Clinical Research).

Professor Bill Sievert, who has been with Monash Health for more than 30 years, was recognised for his years of work in liver research, as well his dedication to mentoring research students.

Professor Sievert began studying placental stem cells in mice about 12 years ago to see if these cells helped in reversing liver inflammation and fibrosis.

“Finding an anti-fibrotic that reduces or reverses scarring on the liver is the holy grail,” he says.

“We now have good evidence that these placental stem cells work very well in animals, and have just completed our first human study, in collaboration with Associate Professor Rebecca Lim who heads the Amnion Cell Biology Group in the Ritchie Centre at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research.

“This is early phase research where we check the safety of the treatment in humans, but we can also look to see if the cells can reduce liver fibrosis.”

The next crucial step, Professor Sievert said, is to investigate whether exosomes (micro-particles which are derived from the placental stem cells), work as well as whole cells to alleviate liver fibrosis and inflammation.

 “Liver disease plays out over many years and people may be unaware of liver damage and do not have symptoms – until they do,” he said. “Fatty liver disease, which is associated with diabetes and obesity, is overtaking viral hepatitis as a cause for liver transplantation so there is still a lot of work to do in the community to raise awareness.”

Professor Sievert finds mentoring early career research students very rewarding and is keen to further integrate research into daily practice at Monash Health.

Dr Keung, who has been with Monash Health since 2016, was awarded for her research into using placental stem cell therapy to treat perianal fistulas, a painful and distressing condition for some people who live with Crohn’s disease.

Perianal fistulas occur when abnormal connections form between the bowel and other parts of the body. These can lead to incontinence and infections.

Crohn’s disease has no cure and is generally managed with medications, however, in a first in human trial, the stem cell therapy research, which involved 10 patients from Monash Health’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease clinic, showed promising results.

Dr Keung said the therapy had assisted 80 per cent of the patients in the trial, with all retaining the benefit a year later.

“Crohn’s disease typically affects people in their twenties to their forties – so people in their most productive years,” she said. “The patients in the trial had all tried other therapies without success.

The team, supervised by Associate Professor Gregory Moore who is the Head of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Service at Monash Health, is now preparing for another trial, funded by the Medical Research Future Fund, which will run for three years.

“We are trying to improve patient outcomes with fistula healing to improve their health as well as quality of life in this difficult to treat condition,” Dr Keung said. “Hopefully we will again see positive outcomes, showing the stem cells and exosomes reduce inflammation and promote healing.

Congratulations Professor Sievert and Dr Keung on your deserved recognition.