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Katherine Fitzgerald to receive American Association of Immunologists award

Thermo Fisher Meritorious Career Award recognizes outstanding research contributions to the field

By Susan E.W. Spencer

UMass Chan Medical School Communications

enero 20, 2022

Katherine A. Fitzgerald, PhD, has been named the 2022 recipient of the American Association of Immunologists - Thermo Fisher Meritorious Career Award. The award, given by the AAI, recognizes a mid-career scientist for outstanding research contributions to the field of immunology.

Katherine A. Fitzgerald, PhD

Dr. Fitzgerald, the Worcester Foundation for Biomedical Research Chair, professor of medicine, vice chair for research in the Department of Medicine and director of the Program in Innate Immunity, has been widely recognized for her pioneering work on innate immune receptors, signaling pathways and regulation of inflammatory gene expression.

Among her recent honors, Fitzgerald was elected to the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences in 2021 and was named a Harrington Scholar in 2020. She was also admitted to the Royal Irish Academy in 2020.

The award will be presented at the AAI annual meeting in May in Portland, Oregon, where Fitzgerald will present a lecture on her work. In addition, she will receive a $10,000 award.

“It’s a really big honor. It’s very exciting,” said Fitzgerald, who had been previously recognized by AAI for early-career achievement. “I think of it, as with any award given to me, as deserved recognition of the trainees in the lab who contributed to this work over the years. I’ve had fantastic postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.”

Fitzgerald’s lecture will focus on some of her lab’s recent work on nucleic acid sensing pathways, particularly in relation to SARS-CoV-2, to understand how the virus evades the innate immune system to cause severe COVID-19. By understanding these mechanisms, scientists can find ways to block viral replication that leads to severe COVID-19 disease, she said.

The field of immunology has evolved extensively since Fitzgerald arrived at UMass Chan Medical School from Ireland 20 years ago, she said.

Her research focuses on mechanisms of innate immunity, considered the body’s first line of defense against infection. The innate immune response relies on receptors that sense microbial products. Careful regulation of innate immunity is equally essential to avoid detrimental inflammatory diseases.

“Innate immunity was really underexplored when I began my career; it was often covered in a short paragraph in immunology textbooks. These days, it is one of the most dynamic aspects of immunology,” Fitzgerald said. “We realize now how innate immune mechanisms are central to defending us against infection, to vaccination and to inflammation in chronic disease. Without the innate immune system, we certainly wouldn’t have the mRNA vaccines that are so effective now for COVID-19.”

This area of research is opening windows to exciting new possibilities, said Fitzgerald: “Now that we know what the key receptors and pathways of innate immunity are, and how maladaptation of these pathways contributes to autoimmune and auto-inflammatory diseases, we are well positioned to intervene and block them in different diseases, in a way that might be beneficial.”

Related stories on UMassMed News:
Job Dekker and Katherine Fitzgerald elected to National Academy of Medicine
UMMS research identifies potential antiviral compound for COVID-19, flu, other viral infection
Katherine Fitzgerald and Nikolaus Grigorieff elected to National Academy of Sciences