VCU’s chief of hepatology shares recipe for success and personal history as a hepatitis C and kidney disease investigator

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In 1997, Richard K. Sterling, M.D., witnessed a growing interest in hepatology within the medical community. The most sought-after hepatology careers at the time involved liver transplants, but Sterling was drawn to work in the field of liver cancer and viral hepatitis in special populations because he saw increasing incidents of the disease in a world with few, if any, treatments.

Today, Sterling is a professor of medicine and chief of hepatology for the VCU School of Medicine’s Division of GastroenterologyHepatology and Nutrition. He is a celebrated researcher who has earned numerous grants and awards, including a Research Project grant for his study, titled “HBV HIV Coinfection Research Network,” in addition to a National Institutes of Health Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development award for his study, “HCV-HIV Coinfection: Impact of Immune Dysfunction.”

An expert whose scholarship has largely been in the areas of hepatitis C and B, non-invasive assessment of liver disease, hepatocellular carcinoma, and liver diseases in those with HIV or kidney disease, Sterling has had the opportunity to work with many unique populations and expand VCU’s portfolio of disease research.

Sterling is currently leading two five-year grants in which he utilizes the resources at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research (supported by award No. UL1TR000058) and sees participants at the VCU Wright CCTR’s Clinical Research Services unit located within VCU Health’s North Hospital.

“The CCTR’s Clinical Research Services unit strengthened my application for the K23,” Sterling said. “Being able to share that I would be working with participants in a NIH-sponsored facility was an important component of my application.”

Sterling’s history of utilizing the resources at the VCU Wright CCTR dates back even further. In 2014, Tim Aro, manager of Clinical Research Informatics for the VCU Wright CCTR, sat down with Sterling to discuss his involvement with the HCV-Target, an international consortium of leading HCV investigators. They discussed the feasibility of working collaboratively with the University of Florida to devise an automated solution to transfer de-identified HCV participant data from VCU to Florida to help populate an international registry residing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“After contacting the University of Florida to discuss the technology required to dovetail our processes at VCU with the HCV-Target data pipeline, it quickly became apparent we could devise a method for transferring de-identified HCV participant data to the registry with minimal human intervention, thus mitigating the risk of accidental disclosure of PHI,” said Aro. “Dr. Sterling was very excited about the project and he provided great insight into what the research team’s needs and goals were.”

Aro’s Clinical Research Informatics team was able to implement the technology by working hand-in-hand with Sterling’s team, VCU Health and the University of Florida. The automated process now mitigates risks associated with manual processes while also improving efficiencies. This allows Sterling’s team to focus on the science aspects of the project while the technology handles the actual data transfer.

Nearly a decade earlier, Sterling and Aro also worked together to develop a comprehensive database to support Sterling’s leading-edge research projects. Sterling opened a coinfection clinic for HIV-infected participants with hepatitis C virus based off research from his K23 grant, but found he was lacking the kind of rich, efficient database that could progress his study even further.

“The database requirements were quite extensive and included ease of data entry, search capabilities, canned and ad hoc reports, and the ability to accommodate a variety of cohorts,” said Aro. “The bottom line is we strive to build sound data capture, management and reporting solutions that make the investigators’ lives just a bit easier in this challenging world of research.”

“I needed a powerful database and I was really very fortunate to work with Tim,” said Sterling. “He helped me speak the language of this technology and I’ve kept up the database he designed for years now. I’ve been awarded many scholarships because of it.”

When asked what recommendations he would give to young investigators looking to get involved in clinical research, Sterling responds that the recipe for success includes establishing yourself in a supportive environment, looking for opportunities for independent funding, identifying mentors, and collaborating.

“Part of the reason I came to VCU was because I knew the right environment of institutional support and colleague support existed here,” Sterling said. “I hope to continue providing this experience to more junior colleagues.”


[Note: The project described was supported by CTSA award No. UL1TR000058 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent official views of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences or the National Institutes of Health.]