Immunology expert Dr Kate Lawlor has spent the past 15 years studying how inflammatory and autoimmune diseases develop. By understanding how these diseases develop she is working on creating new therapeutic treatments that can target both chronic and infectious diseases.
What is your field of research?
Broadly, my research looks at how cell death contributes to infectious and inflammatory diseases. Cells
are programmed to die all the time to maintain human health. My research looks at how we can either stop cell death, or cause cell death to treat diseases.
I got into this line of work because I wanted to understand the complex mechanisms that drive diseases. Basically, I like solving puzzles.
My growing research team focuses on translating this knowledge into repurposing anti-cancer drugs and designing new therapies to promote appropriate immune responses to clear infectious pathogens or dampen inflammation.
What research are you working on?
Type 2 diabetes is approaching epidemic levels in Australia, with 1.6 million people estimated to be affected. We already have promising data suggesting that inhibiting cell death could protect patients from the chronic inflammation that drives the development of type 2 diabetes.
My team is also tackling the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance and the emerging threat of superbugs. We are investigating whether we can repurpose or develop highly specific drugs to induce targeted death of infected patient cells, rather than attacking the bug itself.
What is the most exciting thing that’s happened in your career?
It often takes years to see fundamental discoveries translated into clinical outcomes for patients, so it is exciting to see my research moving through this process. During my PhD I was looking at new ways to treat rheumatoid arthritis, and discovered that a protein, Granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF), was critical for disease progression.
Based on the discovery, the biotherapy company CSL has now developed an antibody that inhibits G-CSF’s activity. The antibody is now in phase I clinical trials in Melbourne.
This work has fostered my interest in collaborating with companies to expedite new therapies entering the clinic. I find this process very rewarding as I’m passionate about seeing my discoveries turn into treatments that improve people’s lives.
HOW CELL DEATH CONTRIBUTES TO INFECTIOUS AND CHRONIC DISEASES
In infectious diseases, such as Legionnaire’s disease and gonorrhoea, the bacteria take over cells in the body in order to replicate. In these instances, we want to target infected cells and cause them to die faster and stop the spread of the bacteria. We can use newly developed, highly specific anti-cancer drugs to increase the rate of cell death.
In chronic diseases, such as diabetes or arthritis, too much cell death can cause inflammation. In this scenario, we want to regulate cell death. To do this we work to develop ‘small molecule’ drugs to limit cell death and inflammation.