For her research in innate immunology and her continued collaboration with scientists in Ireland, Dr. Katherine Fitzgerald was the 2015 recipient of the Science Foundation Ireland’s Saint Patrick’s Day Science Medal. Fitzgerald was born in Ireland and studied at the University College of Cork Ireland and Trinity College in Dublin from which she earned her doctorate in 1999. After spending three years as a post-doc researcher at Trinity she began her work in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 2001. Three years later she was appointed to the faculty at UMass and is currently a Professor of Medicine and Co-Director of the Program of Innate Immunity.
The work in the Fitzgerald lab is focused on understanding the molecular basis of host defense and the inflammatory process. The team there has been studying particular receptor cells that can recognize the DNA of microbes and create an inflammatory response to protect the human body. These receptors are part of the innate immune system – the one that humans are born with that responds quickly to a detection of an antigen in the body. While this system is designed to ward off pathogens it can sometimes incorrectly read our own DNA and create dangerous inflammations when no real threat is present. Dr. Fitzgerald and her team are working to understand how dysregulation of innate immunity underlies the pathogenesis of infectious, inflammatory and autoimmune disease in humans. Or in more simple terms they hope to be able to develop ways to block or boost DNA reactions as needed. That in cases where the body is giving off an immune response to its own DNA, think autoimmune diseases like Lupus, these receptors can be blocked stopping the response. And in cases where a greater immune response is needed the receptors can be ramped up and the body will have a better chance at having a successful immune response.
In addition to the SFI medal, Dr. Fitzgerald has also been awarded a BD-Investigator Award, an Eli Lilly and Elanco Company award, and an NIH Merit award.
Written by Angela Goad