Immune from attack

Associate Professor Kate Schroder

Associate Professor Kate Schroder from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

Associate Professor Kate Schroder from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

Associate Professor Kate Schroder may spend her days fighting, but it’s all for a good cause – saving lives.

As an immunologist, Associate Professor Schroder is fascinated by how our bodies ward off disease, and why we often use a ‘sledgehammer’ to fend off apparently minor threats.

“The body’s first line of defence against infectious attack is the innate immune system. If our immune cells encounter micro-organisms or other signs of danger, they draw their weapons and call for back-up, the same way security guards in real life do when they see something suspicious,” she said.

“This process is called ‘inflammation’.

"Inflammation protects us from the barrage of microbes that we encounter every day, but it can be troublesome if not turned off or inappropriately turned on, leading to chronic diseases such as gout and diabetes, or even neurodegenerative disease and cancer.”

Associate Professor Schroder has made it her life’s mission to discover exactly how our bodies detect danger and why we launch both healthy (disease prevention) and unhealthy (disease creation) inflammation responses, and she is starting to wear the enemy down.

So what sparked this ‘weekday warrior’ work?

While studying her Bachelor of Science at UQ, from which she graduated with first-class honours in 1999, Associate Professor Schroder became interested in biology, and in particular, infection biology and immunology.

“I started my Bachelor of Science with a vague notion of pursuing mathematics. I didn't take biology during high school, but quickly became fascinated by it during my first-year biology subjects.

“In the second year of my studies I started to learn about microbes, the immune system and the interactions between these. I quickly became hooked! It was clear to me that this was the research area I wanted to follow.”

This spurred her to complete a PhD in immunology, the biological study of the body’s defence system – also at UQ – in 2005, where she defined how the macrophage, an important cell of the innate immune system, becomes activated to ingest and destroy foreign matter in the body, and trigger inflammation.

Postdoctoral research from 2005 until 2008 saw her continue work with Professors David Hume and Matthew Sweet at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), further investigating the mechanisms of macrophage activation – specifically, what programs galvanise these cells into action. Here, she identified surprising inter-species differences in the inflammatory programs launched by these cells in mice and humans.

Associate Professor Kate Schroder

Associate Professor Kate Schroder.

Associate Professor Kate Schroder

She then moved to Switzerland in 2008 as a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) CJ Martin Fellow where she trained under the late Professor Jürg Tschopp, pioneer of inflammasome biology. It was here that she became an expert on the inflammasome, an important cell-signalling pathway that generates inflammation in the body.

Associate Professor Kate Schroder

Her expertise was put to immediate use upon her return to Australia, when she initiated the Schroder Lab at IMB in 2013, currently funded by her NHMRC RD Wright Fellowship. With her team of eight, she is defining the molecular and cellular processes of inflammation, seeking to unravel the secrets of inflammasomes to allow for new therapies to fight human diseases.

Her work to date has already garnered much acclaim, including a UQ Foundation Research Excellence Award, a Tall Poppy Science Award and Queensland Premier’s Awards (Health and Medical Research).

“Inflammasomes are a key pathway that creates the body’s inflammation response that protects us from attack by microbes,” Associate Professor Schroder said.

“My goal is to find out why this pathway sometimes takes a wrong turn, attacking the person it is supposed to defend. My lab strives to understand such malfunctions and how we can stop them. I hope that my research will lead to new approaches for treating inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases.”

In her work with Trinity College Dublin, Associate Professor Schroder’s wish may soon come true.

The University of Queensland and Trinity College Dublin have jointly established Inflazome Ltd – a company based in Ireland that is developing first-in-class treatments for inflammatory diseases, which work by inhibiting the inflammasome. New anti-inflammatory drugs could be hitting the marketplace in just a few years. A Series A financing round of €15 million (A$22 million) to commercialise the research has recently been announced by UniQuest, UQ’s commercialisation entity, in one of the largest biotech Series A investments originating from an Australian university.

“This is fantastic news,” Associate Professor Schroder said.

“The faith that our investors, Novartis Venture Fund and Fountain Healthcare Partners, have placed in our work gives us the resources to develop these promising inhibitors as new anti-inflammatory drugs. There is an urgent need for such therapeutics in a range of conditions, including common diseases like gout, chronic liver disease, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.”

Connect with Dr Schroder or support her important work.