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Professor Ranjeny Thomas. Photo: Supplied

Unlocking the secrets of autoimmune disease

Faith Works Uniting Community in Brisbane member Professor Ranjeny Thomas, Arthritis Queensland Professor of Rheumatology and Head, Immunology Programme at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute, talks about work, worship and women in leadership.

What drew you to the field of immunology?

I am a clinical rheumatologist and I have always been fascinated to uncover how life-changing autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and vasculitis come about. These diseases are highly inflammatory and can cause devastating effects.

The immune system is like the nervous system, a large network of organs, cells and processes that need to coordinate and function effectively to fight infection, prevent cancers from growing, heal wounds and reject foreign tissues (transplants), all while tolerating our own self-tissues. The more we understand how these processes work, the better we can leverage them for vaccination and restore them when things go awry.

What are some of outcomes of your research?

My work has been in understanding the control switches the immune system uses to fight infection or foreign tissue versus calmly tolerating self. In RA and type 1 diabetes, self-tolerance is disrupted in joints and pancreas respectively, leading to inflammation and tissue destruction. In RA, existing drugs suppress inflammation and work pretty well, but fail to cure the underlying faulty immune process.

In type 1 diabetes we have no effective drugs acting on the faulty immune system, so insulin injections are a life-support.

After figuring out the immune control switch for self-tolerance in the early 2000s, my team set about creating smart “nanoparticle” drugs to restore immune tolerance in patients with RA and type 1 diabetes. We developed and trialled a novel product in RA and have another one in development for type 1 diabetes. Further trials lie ahead, moving closer and closer to the goal of disease prevention in individuals at high risk.

How are you involved in your local church and the wider church?

I lead music and preach from time to time at Faith Works Uniting Community and I am on church council. I take a strategic and provocative approach on council, bringing my extensive real-world background as a lateral-thinking scientist, compassionate physician, manager of research teams and resources, innovator directing a small spin-off company, and experience dealing with large organisations (university, hospital, industry) juggling many different agendas. I previously sat on the Board for Christian Formation and attended Synod, both of which gave me a great insight into the wider church.

What drives you to make time to be part of your local church?

Being part of the mission and worship of my local church is a non-negotiable part of my busy life! I love to help create meaningful worship experiences for people—sometimes it’s music that helps a person find that other spiritual dimension, sometimes it’s words, sometimes it’s a visual experience. But creating that connection to Christ in worship is very special when it happens.

As in my work, I love to be challenged as a Christian; I hate being limited or told I can’t. I love the challenge of discernment through prayer, study and observation, then problem-solving and creating a new path, and finally seeing the new shoots of life as the seeds you have sown start to grow.

How would you encourage other women to be part of decision-making in the church?

It’s always easy to sit back and wait till someone else takes the lead, but if you feel called to lead and have the ideas and the passion to take on a leadership role, then why not? God will help you discern where your gifts can be used most effectively—sometimes opportunities just pop up and we have to decide to take a leap.

Ask yourself—what is the worst that can happen? If there’s any real possibility of that actually happening, put in a contingency plan.

Step out of your comfort zone, trust that God is with you, take on a mentor to get that extra measure of confidence and walk out in faith! The leadership roles you take on from within the supportive community of the church may well give you confidence to do more in other aspects of your life.

In 2020 the Queensland Synod will launch a mentoring and leadership development pilot, initially focusing on women in leadership. For more information, contact Kathryn.Behan@ucaqld.com.au

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