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10 Jun 2022 by Ludwig Boltzmann

We congratulate…

Today Sonja Rittchen celebrated her doctorate at the Medical University of Graz under the auspices of Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen. She completed her PhD programme in Molecular Inflammation (DK-MOLIN) at the Medical University of Graz with outstanding results. Her research focuses on the immune system, in particular on respiratory diseases and the cells that contribute to the development of acute inflammatory reactions in the lungs.

Interplay between the immune system and respiratory diseases

Sonja Rittchen was born in Wolfsberg, Carinthia, in 1993 and studied Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at the IMC University of Applied Sciences Krems and Biochemistry and Molecular Biomedicine at the Graz University of Technology. Her interest in immune reactions and their deregulation in many diseases was awakened during a research project on multiple sclerosis in Edinburgh during her bachelor’s degree. The young researcher was particularly fascinated by the countless molecular interactions and pathomechanisms that contribute to the development and progression of the disease. She therefore focussed her research on the innate immune system, i.e. the part of the body’s immune system that is innate or present from birth. Specifically, she wants to investigate which cells and inflammatory mediators contribute to the development of acute inflammatory reactions in the lungs.

After completing her Master’s degree, Sonja Rittchen’s research questions relating to lung health led her to the Medical University of Graz, where she completed her PhD programme between 2016 and 2021. During this time, she also spent six months as a visiting PhD student in Dr Simon Phipps’ group at QIMR Berghofer, Brisbane, Australia, where she worked on antiviral immunity and asthma. She wrote her dissertation entitled “The hPGDS-PGD2-DP1-DP2 axis in the innate immune system and pulmonary inflammation” at the Chair of Pharmacology at the Otto Loewi Research Centre at the Medical University of Graz. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Medical University of Graz and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Pulmonary Vascular Research, focussing her research on the fields of immunology, pulmonology and vascular biology.

Inflammatory reactions and vascular changes in the lungs

Respiratory diseases are a major health burden and are among the leading causes of death and disability worldwide, as the dangerous course of coronavirus disease has shown. To date, there is a lack of specific evidence to limit overactivation or abnormal function of the innate immune system. This is where Sonja Rittchen wants to start her research. She is interested in the pro-inflammatory lipid mediator prostaglandin D2, which exerts various inflammatory effects, including the recruitment and activation of immune cells, bronchoconstriction and hyperactivation of the airways. Together with her colleagues, she was able to show that monocytes and macrophages release prostaglandin D2 in the acute phase of pneumonia and that this process could be a potential therapeutic target to prevent an overreaction of the immune system. During her stay abroad in Australia, she was able to investigate in detail the extent of the influence of monocytes and macrophages in the specific case of acute viral exacerbation of allergic asthma.

If several factors get out of hand over a long period of time, for example recurring inflammation in combination with genetic susceptibility to disease, chronic lung diseases can develop. Over the years, this often leads to abnormalities in the blood vessels, including the blockage of medium and small pulmonary arteries, which in turn leads to increased pulmonary blood pressure and is often fatal for patients. The immune system also plays a central role here. The current postdoctoral position at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Pulmonary Vascular Research enables Sonja Rittchen to research the effects of inflammatory reactions in combination with other mechanisms on pathological vascular changes in chronic lung diseases.

In the future, the scientist wants to continue her research into the fascinating interactions of the immune system in order to identify the first signs of misdirected immune reactions, triggers and potential therapeutic targets.

a. Vlnr.: Rektor Hellmut Samonigg, Promovendin Sonja Rittchen und Bundespräsident Alexander Van der Bellen. Bild: Med Uni Graz / Lunghammer