Meet Our Researcher – Dr. Sara Belga

Tailoring Post-Transplant Care for Recipients:
Why Research Matters with Dr. Sara Belga

For the past three years, TRF has partnered with Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI) to fund highly rated transplant-focused research projects through the Team Grant program. These $30,000 awards seek to answer research questions that matter to patients, while addressing key areas of practice for transplant medicine at Vancouver General Hospital.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Sara Belga – the recipient of the 2021/2022 VCHRI Team Grant – for her project, A Novel CMV-Specific Cell-Mediated Immunity Assay to Predict CMV Infection in Renal Transplant Recipients – A Pilot Prospective Study. Dr. Belga sheds light on why this research is needed and how it has the potential to revolutionize the care of renal patients post-transplant.

Q: What is your connection to transplant medicine?
A: I am an infectious diseases physician with extra training in transplant infectious diseases. Therefore, my practice focuses on immunocompromised patients, including those who received a transplant.

Q: Can you tell us more about your innovative project that seeks to develop a new way to predict a patient’s likelihood for serious CMV infection following transplantation?
A: We are designing an assay (blood test) assessing immunity to cytomegalovirus (CMV) to personalize care in kidney transplant patients. CMV is a common virus that typically does not cause serious problems in people with normal immune systems. However, following transplantation, anti-rejection medications can dampen the immune system, allowing the virus to resurface and cause problems. The goal of this study is to trial one CMV immune test in kidney transplant patients to assess those at risk for CMV infection. We will use these tests to track patients’ immune systems during the first-year post-transplant to identify warning signs before patients develop CMV infection.

Q: What potential impact(s) do you anticipate your research having for transplant recipients?
A: We expect that this CMV test will allow early and more accurate assessment of patients at high risk versus those at low risk of CMV infection, resulting in a shift from a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to more individualized treatment. We believe that this test has the potential to not only decrease the frequency of blood work and reduce both medication costs and side effects for those patients deemed low risk of CMV complications, but also improve patient care by allowing for early identification of those at high risk of developing complications from CMV.

Q: How do you envision this project will contribute to advancing transplant knowledge?
A: At present, there is a need for better CMV immunity tests in transplant patients as the published data on its usability is conflicting. Our ultimate goal is to integrate the CMV immunity assay
into our laboratories and use it as a tool to predict CMV infection risk in the transplant setting.

Q: Your project embraces the power of lived experiences and includes two patient partners on your research team. How do you anticipate the patient partner lens will strengthen your research?
A: Our project will be enhanced from patient engagement in many ways. Patient-oriented research can benefit both patients and researchers. The patient partner insight helps address potential barriers to participation and by including patient perspectives, from the start to the end of the study, is key to ensuring our research achieves its intended goal. Considering patients are key players in medical research, I believe it is very important to adapt the research process to their needs, something our patient partners can help shed light on.

Q: What does it mean to have your project funded?
A: It means that we can learn more about CMV immunity in transplant patients, particularly the risk factors for complications associated with this virus. It is very exciting to move ahead with this study since it is the first time this particular CMV immunity assay is being studied in the transplant population. As this is an area where more research is needed, I am very hopeful that this study will shed light on the immune responses to CMV in the first year after transplant.

Donors make research like this possible! Please donate to support organ donation and transplant research and give hope to patients in our province.