Emeritus Professor Carolyn Geczy
UNSW Sydney
3 September 2018

Asthma Australia reports that one in nine Australians have asthma (~2.5 million). It is most common in people from low socioeconomic groups, with the number of incidence and deaths from asthma in Indigenous Australians is almost double.

2011 | $505,814

Between 2000 and 2017, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) committed over $277.8 million to 565 asthma related projects, fellowships and scholarships across Australia that hope to make a difference to the lives of people living with asthma.

For National Asthma Week, Emeritus Professor Carolyn Geczy gives us insight into her early career and how her research increased understanding of the role of S100 proteins in asthma, allergy and other inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, infection and cardiovascular disease.

Beginning in the 1960’s, Professor Geczy’s career path tells an interesting story. After having to pursue a career in Science by default due to being one of the only part-time courses available at the time, Professor Geczy completed her undergraduate degree over six years at University of New South Wales. Surprised at how much she enjoyed it, Professor Geczy completed an honours degree in Biochemistry and a PhD in Microbiology, followed by post-doctoral appointments at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Institute of Clinical Immunology, Bern in Switzerland.

In Bern she worked with a world leader in the field, Alain de Weck and it was then that Professor Geczy developed an interest in allergy. Since then she has been fascinated by mechanisms that regulate inflammation.

‘I decided to apply for NHMRC funding because this was a new area of research describing novel mechanisms in allergy and inflammation,’ said Professor Geczy.

Professor Geczy and her research team examined new ways in which the major effector cells of allergy migrate to sites of inflammation, such as the lung or the skin, a process modulated locally by a novel S100 protein mediator.

‘We have found a natural protein of the innate immune system in cells in the lungs of patients with acute asthma.This suppressed release of key mediators triggers an asthma attack’ explained Professor Geczy.

This research characterized properties of a new mediator with anti-inflammatory properties in the lung. The protein called S100A8, is naturally present in cells stimulated by an inflammatory response. Professor Geczy found that S100A8 induces production of an important anti-inflammatory cytokine (interleukin 10) in airway epithelial cells and thereby dampens inflammation.

‘Interestingly, S100A8 also acts as a potent anti-oxidant and scavenges dangerous oxidants in the asthmatic lung. We also showed that S100A8’s ability to reduce activation of allergen-activated mast cells so that they no longer produced histamine, a key mediator in asthma, depends on its anti-oxidant function' said Professor Geczy.

Professor Geczy considers her career in research an enormous privilege as she was able to completely immerse herself in the subject and was continuously challenged. She takes satisfaction in answering novel questions, of paving the way for future directions that show promise, of working with scientists from all over the world, of applying state-of-the-art techniques and of mentoring the next generation of researchers.

‘One of the biggest challenges in research is obtaining funding to sustain projects. These days researchers must apply for multiple grants, and seek additional avenues of funding. This represents substantial time taken away from the research itself’ explained Professor Geczy.

Professor Geczy considers herself very fortunate of being continuously funded throughout her career, some of that time as an NHMRC Research Fellow. She recommends future researchers to branch out from specific research topics to achieve a breadth of understanding, and to collaborate with experts.

‘I owe my research career to the support awarded to me by the NHMRC. I no longer have a laboratory, but spend a great deal of time mentoring young researchers in grantsmanship, and guiding them with their NHMRC applications’ said Professor Geczy.

Featured image Credit
Photo supplied by: www.asthmaaustralia.org.au