Unravelling the mysteries of gastrointestinal health: Sabrina Koentgen

At the UNSW Microbiome Research Centre (MRC), Sabrina Koentgen, a dedicated third-year PhD student, is delving deep into the intricate world of microbiology. Passionate about deciphering the complexities of the human microbiome, Sabrina’s journey is a testament to her unwavering commitment to understanding the delicate balance between health and disease.

Sabrina Koentgen

“Microbiology has always been an interest of mine – throughout my schooling I loved learning how to selectively culture bacteria as well as the traditional techniques and methods used to understand bacterial metabolism and identification,” Sabrina reflects. “Microbiology is so often associated only with the organisms that cause acute or severe illness/disease, but I think a lot of what I enjoy in the field is the potential for microbes to be used in promoting health and preventing disease.”

For Sabrina, human microbiome research represents a fusion of modern techniques (next-generation sequencing techniques) and traditional microbiology (or culture-based techniques), offering a window into the symbiotic relationship between humans and their microbial counterparts. “Gastrointestinal microbes act as their own metabolic organ. Diverse compositions of gut bacteria supports health whereas disrupted communities have been linked to various disease states,” she adds, emphasising the profound impact of microbes on human health.

“Microbiome research is a growing field with more knowledge being contributed as to how bacteria, fungi and viruses interact with each other and our own cells and environment to impact our health. These microbes are extremely complex and powerful organisms and it’s very exciting to research their potential in both health and disease promotion.”

SSMRF 2023 Medical research grant provided $20,000 towards Sabrina’s current project, “Understanding gastrointestinal health in first-degree relatives of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients”.

“Our project aims to better understand the health and disease of local families affected by IBD,” Sabrina explains. “IBD is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract which greatly impacts people’s quality of life and engagement with professional, social, and family activities. Global research findings are now uncovering and better understanding potential causal links between chronic conditions (like IBD) and microbial changes (dysbiosis) in the gastrointestinal tract (gut).”

Sabrina’s research will leverage the Australian IBD Microbiome Study (AIM Study), led by Professor Hold at the MRC since 2019. This multicentre cohort study analyses multiomic profiles from 1,000 participants, including IBD patients, healthy controls, and first-degree relatives of IBD. The team assesses microbial and metabolite profiles alongside health and lifestyle data over 24 months. The AIM study is the first of its kind in Australia, aligning with globally renowned cohorts such as the Canadian-led Genes Environment and Microbiome (GEM) study.

With the funding awarded by SSMRF, Sabrina and the project team seek to interrogate the unique cohort of first-degree relatives recruited within AIM. “First-degree relatives have 2-20 fold higher risk of developing IBD compared to population controls. They share a variety of genetic as well as environmental risk factors with their IBD relatives, especially with closer genetic relation (first-degree – sibling, parent, offspring),” she notes. “Despite this, most first-degree relatives do not develop IBD.”

“Comparing health profiles of these first-degree relatives to their IBD relatives and the healthy controls may allow us to identify novel markers of health pertinent to IBD disease development and progression.”

The project team aims to understand changes in microbial composition and assess microbial community function through metabolite analysis, including short-chain fatty acids. These metabolites are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and indicate healthy microbial fermentation of dietary fibres.

Additionally, Sabrina and the team are investigating gastrointestinal inflammation using faecal calprotectin, a clinical marker often used for estimating IBD activity. Elevated faecal calprotectin levels in previous IBD first-degree relative cohorts suggest clinical or subclinical inflammation.

Through a comprehensive analysis encompassing microbiome composition, metabolite production and gastrointestinal inflammation, Sabrina aims to paint a holistic picture of gastrointestinal health in this high-risk population. “Combining these -omic metrics (microbiome and metabolome) will give us a holistic picture of gastrointestinal health in our first-degree relative group,” she explains.

“By comparing the first-degree relative profile to their IBD relatives and healthy controls, we then hope to identify key biomarkers related to IBD and the maintenance of gastrointestinal health as well as potential factors that prevent disease progression in the first-degree relative group despite shared genetic and environmental risk factors.”

Outside the laboratory, Sabrina finds solace in exploration, whether it’s traversing the globe to immerse herself in diverse cultures or venturing beneath the waves for a glimpse of marine life. “Outside of research, I love having the opportunity to travel and experience new cultures and places,” she shares. “I enjoy the beach and try to scuba dive or snorkel whenever I have the chance.”

SSMRF CEO Pam Brown emphasises, “At SSMRF, we firmly believe in the power of funding medical research to pave the way for better treatments and enhanced healthcare, not only for our community but also beyond. Witnessing the impact of donations directed toward local hospital research initiatives is truly gratifying. Our mission is to sponsor more research projects each year, and we call upon our community to join us in supporting our grants program. By contributing to transformative medical research, we can collectively improve the health and well-being of local families, a cause that warrants our utmost consideration.”

Research we have funded

Sabrina Koentgen (middle) with Professor Georgina Hold and Associate Professor Julia Maclean.

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