New horizons in
infectious disease research

Associate Professor Antje Blumenthal still recalls the time in primary school when she first learned about bacteria and how it could make people sick. She was so excited she had butterflies in her stomach, and her passion for knowledge and discovery was born.

The microbiologist and immunologist now leads a team of talented scientists and clinicians in their quest to find new treatments for conditions including sepsis and tuberculosis. She established a laboratory at UQ seven years ago, and while that’s a relatively short time by research standards, progress has been remarkable.

One of the lab’s projects is a concerted effort to find new antibiotics for drug-resistant TB. Several new classes of compounds have been identified through this close collaboration with Professor Rob Capon (Institute for Molecular Bioscience), and drug optimisation and formulation for the most promising candidates are moving ahead. This is in addition to an NHMRC-funded study looking at molecular mechanisms that alert the immune system to the presence of TB bacteria.

Associate Professor Antje Blumenthal carries out tests in the lab.

Associate Professor Antje Blumenthal carries out tests in the lab.

Dr Blumenthal’s researchers more recently turned their attention to sepsis, building on their long-standing expertise in exploring the complex interactions between pathogens and the immune system. They discovered dysregulation of a complex molecular signalling network in patients with septic shock.

The pathway – known as WNT signalling - had previously been associated with embryonic development and cancer formation rather than with immune responses.

“Manipulating this pathway in sepsis models showed we could probably control damaging inflammation without affecting protective immune responses. This was exciting because there are already new drugs targeting this pathway in clinical trials for cancer.”

The Blumenthal lab is collaborating with Associate Professor Jeremy Cohen (Royal Brisbane Clinical Unit) and Professor Bala Venkatesh (Wesley Clinical Unit) to pair research in model systems with studies in patient samples.

“Understanding the biology is the first step towards figuring out why some patients survive sepsis and others don’t. These insights may reveal potential targets for urgently-needed supportive therapies to treat and manage patients at risk.”

As a child with great appreciation for the natural world, Dr Blumenthal’s passion for discovery was sparked by family, and influential teachers, in her native Germany.

“We started formal biology classes in fifth grade, and I’m still just as excited about it now,” Dr Blumenthal says.

“I love doing research - the excitement of being able to explore something that probably nobody has ever looked at before. It’s a bit like detective work and I learn something new every day.”

Supervising and mentoring students and postdocs is another aspect of the job that Dr Blumenthal clearly enjoys. The advocate for high quality research is known for holding her team to high standards, but also for encouraging and assisting them to pursue their scientific passions.

“I care about their careers and development, but also about them as people,” Dr Blumenthal says. “I can relate to a lot of what they go through, be it stressful periods in their own development, or other pressures.Just stepping back and helping them is something that’s very important to me.”

“Every time I graduate a student it makes me really proud. You see them grow so much, and they go off and they’re fully fledged scientists. It’s amazing to be a part of their journey.”

This story is featured in the Summer 2017 edition of UQMedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine visit our content hub, MayneStream.