Services to medicine, tertiary education and Indian community

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Dr Minoti Vivek Apte’s work in pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer earns her an OAM

Alcohol-induced pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer, a highly aggressive form of cancer with high mortality-to-incidence ratio, have been the focus Dr Minoti Vivek Apte’s research for nearly three decades now. Hitherto, pancreatic cancer has defied traditional therapeutic approaches, spreading aggressively before visible symptoms appear.

A professor in the Faculty of Medicine at University of New South Wales and The Ingham Institute of Applied Medical Research and Director of the Pancreatic Research Group, Dr Apte was the first in the world to isolate and characterise the pancreatic stellate cell (PSC), the key cell responsible for producing scar tissue in the pancreas. An internationally acknowledged researcher in the field of alcohol-induced pancreatic injury, she is particularly recognised as a pioneer in the field of pancreatic fibrogenesis. More recently, her work has established that close cross-talk between stellate cells and cancer cells is responsible for rapid progression of pancreatic cancer. These pioneering studies, have helped put Australian pancreatic research on the world map.

Dr Apte has a very active service record at Faculty, University and Discipline levels. She is a founding member of the Australasian Pancreatic Club and Asian Oceanic Pancreatic Association. As past chair of the Faculty Higher Degree Committee and as post-graduate coordinator for the South Western Sydney Clinical School, Dr Apte has mentored numerous medical and science students.

“Nurturing talent is a very important responsibility to preserve the future of medicine and research in our country,” Dr Apte acknowledged. “Students need the right structure and guidance through their journey. As medicine becomes more evidence-based, we have to engender strong research skills and critical thinking,” she added.

She also regularly engages with the research community worldwide through Gastroenterological forums. In recognition of her significant contribution, she was recently made a Fellow of the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA).

For her services to medicine, tertiary education and Indian community, Dr Apte has been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

“It is a recognition, of not just my work but my whole team, particularly my supervisors Professors Jeremy Wilson and Ron Pirola, who encouraged and allowed me the freedom to explore different areas,” speaking to Indian Link, Dr Apte said. “More importantly, it is also very humbling as I often wonder if I have done enough to deserve this”.

Dr Apte is particularly grateful to her husband Vivek for being her bedrock of support and to her son Tushar for coping with having such a busy mum. “Without your family behind you, it would be difficult to achieve your full potential,” she reiterated. “After all, research and academia are not 9 to 5 jobs. It is a job for life, which requires dedication and commitment”. She also credits her parents, her sister and brother-in-law and a very tight-knit group of friends for her successes.

Dr Apte strayed into pancreatic studies quite by accident. An alumnus of BJ Medical College in Poona with an interest in ENT, she first arrived in Australia on a dependent spouse visa in the eighties.

“My visa did not permit me to work, so I volunteered in the Histopathology department at Newcastle University, where my husband was pursuing his doctorate in Chemical Engineering,” she recalled.

She soon began researching alcoholism and liver disease, winning a Commonwealth scholarship for a Masters in Medical Science, and became one of the first graduates of the programme. She moved to Sydney and eventually found a job at the Prince of Wales Hospital.

In 1998, as part of her PhD thesis under mentors Dr Wilson and Dr Pirola, Dr Apte developed her world-first method for stellate cell isolation.

“We were the first in the world to show that a specific cell type in the pancreas helped pancreatic cancers grow,” explained Dr Apte. “Its unique feature is the huge amount of scar tissue. We proved that cancer cells recruited normal pancreatic stellate cells to help it grow and travel to distant parts of the body. Our ultimate aim is to develop new treatments that target the cross talk between the cells in pancreatic cancer so as to interrupt these growth-promoting pathways”.

The pancreas is a very significant organ in the body Dr Apte told Indian Link. Along with insulin secretion, it produces crucial digestive enzymes. Before her research, nobody knew what the mechanisms behind scarring were. “Scar tissue is found in pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer and plays an important role in the progression of both diseases,” she explained. Indeed, patients with chronic pancreatitis have a 15 fold higher risk of developing cancer than the normal population, according to Dr Apte.

Unfortunately, alcoholism is now a major problem worldwide. “Drinking is no longer a stigma in Asian countries,” she lamented. “Therefore, we have a responsibility to prevent alcohol-related disease through better education”.

Not one to rest on her academic laurels, Dr Apte is heavily engaged in promoting Marathi culture and arts through MASI. Her passion for classical dance and choreography has led to an active involvement in event coordination and management, the highpoint being Durga Zali Gauri, a musical (dance-drama) with 120 participants.

Dr Apte has found time in her busy schedule to fit in meditation and dance classes as well. “I really enjoy them,” she confessed. “Everyone needs a hobby, dance is mine”.

Read more Queen’s Birthday Honours List stories here:

RK RAM (OAM)

Dr Prem Phakey (AM)

Dr Marlene Kanga (AM)