Infectious diseases clinician, Dr Olivia Smibert, is the first Peter Mac student ever awarded the Gustav Nossal Scholarship – NHMRC’s top PhD scholarship – to undertake studies into whether the gut microbiome can influence transplant success.

Infection is one of  greatest cause of health complications after organ and stem cell transplantation, with infection occurring in up to half of patients and causing death in nearly one in ten instances.

The human gut microbiome has been shown to affect several human conditions following transplantation, such as risk of infection by certain types of bacteria and immunological conditions including ulcerative colitis.

“While previous research has shown a link between the types of bacteria present in the gut and risk of infections and other complications post-transplant, less is known about the other components that make up the microbiome including fungal and viral elements,” says Dr Smibert.

“I predict that the viral and fungal parts of the microbiome play an important role in determining infection risk following solid organ and stem cell transplant, and that understanding the whole microbial environment will reveal new opportunities to prevent and treat infections in this vulnerable group of patients “

In her PhD Dr Smibert will study the changes in the bacterial, viral, and fungal microbiome that occur following transplantation and determine if comprehensive microbiome profiling can predict infection and immunological outcomes.

She will also look for opportunities to manipatulate the microbiome to develop new therapies to prevent infection, which may include faecal microbiota transplantation.

This ground-breaking research will be conducted under the supervision of Prof Monica Slavin, Head of Infectious Disease at Peter Mac, in collaboration with clinicians and researchers at Royal Melbourne Hospital, Austin Health and the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

“Through this work it is hoped we may be able to design better approaches to decrease illness and deaths caused by infections in immunocompromised individuals and to increase the rates of transplant success,” says Dr Smibert.

The significance of this research was recognised by the NHMRC, with Dr Smibert’s grant application assessed as the top ranked application for Clinical Medicine and Science Research in 2019.

"I am very grateful for the encouragement and support that I have received from colleagues, mentors, supervisor’s and now through the NHMRC for this project. I am humbled by the recognition and more motivated than ever to get to work."