Dr. Harry Janssen
Dr. Harry Janssen, Director Toronto Centre for Liver Disease and the Francis Family Liver Clinic, moved here from the Netherlands six years ago. (Photo: UHN)

That four of the world's top liver specialists work out of Toronto General Hospital (TG) isn't news to Dr. Harry Janssen, Director of the Toronto Centre for Liver Disease and the Francis Family Liver Clinic.

Currently considered the world's expert in chronic hepatitis B, Dr. Janssen left a prestigious post in Rotterdam, the Netherlands,six years ago to come to Canada and build North America's biggest and best liver site.

"When I came there were three segmented and rather small liver programs at TGH, TWH and Mount Sinai," says Dr. Janssen. "I saw the opportunity to bring these three programs together and with strategic hiring and thousands of patients under one site,we have been able to put it on the world stage."

Dr. Janssen's hard work and recruiting of top talent was recently recognized when he and three of his colleagues were named top-rated global experts in their speciality, based on publications and citations, according to Expertscape, an organization that ranks expertise and excellence in healthcare.

"There's no other liver group in the world with this level of world expertise combined," says Dr. Janssen.

If you have dedicated your life to finding a cure for hepatitis B,one of the world's leading causes of death by infectious disease, you need to come to where the patients are, and Dr. Janssen knew Toronto was the answer to his research prayers.

"The patients were here. Everything I had in Rotterdam I could multiply by a factor of three," says Dr. Janssen. "We have around 26,000 patient visits a year and unlike big cities in the United States, we are the only liver program in the Greater Toronto Area which has made us the largest liver unit in North America."

Group shot of the four experts
“There’s no other liver group in the world with this level of world expertise combined,” says Dr. Janssen, pictured here with (clockwise from top left) Dr. Gideon Hirschfield, Dr. Morris Sherman, Dr. Janssen and Dr. Jordan Feld. (Photo: UHN)

Liver disease is a big city problem and an international one, so it isn't a surprise that Toronto would have such a high prevalence of it here.For hepatitis B, whether you were born with it, as is often the case in many Asian and African countries, or infected by it in places like Russia and Egypt, or get it through the sharing of needles for those with drug addictions, it can take many years before it kills you, and that's why it's called the 'silent killer.'

Liver cirrhosis and liver cancer are the two major complications of chronic hepatitis B.

Because the disease is under diagnosed and under treated,people are needlessly dying. You would never know that viral hepatitis, the biggest cause of liver disease, can be treated and in some cases cured. In fact, the cure to hepatitis C was really fuelled by the work of Dr. Jordan Feld, one of the other four doctors recognized by Expertscape.

More people die of viral hepatitis than HIV, but effective and prominent advocacy has never been there for a disease that disproportionately strikes people on the lower steps of the socio-economic ladder.

Dr. Janssen's team have worked tirelessly to change this story, to uncover the roots of the disease, develop better care and treatment standards and advocate fiercely on behalf of their patients.

The expert quartet, comprised of Dr. Jordan Feld (ranked No. 9 in chronic hepatitis C), Dr. Gideon Hirschfield (ranked No. 2 in primary biliary cholangitis), Dr. Morris Sherman (ranked No. 2 in liver cancer) and Dr. Janssen (ranked No. 1 in chronic hepatitis B) are diverse and award winning.

Dr. Sherman is retiring at the end of this week after what his colleagues call "a stellar career."

"Over the years, Morris has taught, mentored and trained hundreds of doctors," Dr. Hemant Shah, Director, Clinical Practice, wrote in a special edition of Francis Family Liver Clinic newsletter. "He has treated, managed and helped thousands of patients."

Objective ranking amongst an average of 40,000 colleagues worldwide

The four experts, coming from across Europe and South Africa and Canada, have published multiple papers as lead author in the New England Journal of Medicine and continue to influence global guidelines in care and research.

Dr. Janssen is in particular proud because the ranking is objective and amongst an averageof 40,000 colleagues worldwide. 

Even though the expert ranking was bestowed on these four individuals, Dr. Janssen is quick to point out that they are part of a faculty of 11 hepatologists, all of them, "…extremely hardworking, very smart, and having been trained at the best institutes, such as Harvard, Mayo Clinic, NIH, Duke, Oxford and Cambridge," says Dr. Janssen.

International recognition of this kind doesn't happen without the dedication and support of colleagues who take on the burden in the clinic and in education and continue to deliver excellent care which is at the heart of all that they do.

Thirty years post-PhD, Dr. Janssen is still on the hunt.

"I've spent my life trying to find the 'holy grail' of hepatitis B cure," he says. "You have to be very dedicated.

"It's a very lonely life sometimes but my hope is we will discover a cure before I retire in the next 15 years." 

For the 260million of people around the world living with, and dying of, liver disease Dr. Harry Janssen's face isn't familiar but his life's work just may be keeping them alive.

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