Passion for the immune system |

Biochemist Sonja Rittchen researches overzealous immune cells in the lungs and how they can be stopped. This requires frustration tolerance and team spirit.

Understanding the immune system – that’s what Sonja Rittchen has wanted to do since the beginning of her scientific life. She was fascinated from the start by this complex network of immune cells and their messenger substances. Networks run like a red thread through the career of the 29-year-old biochemist. Sonja Rittchen is a team player, the exchange with other researchers is essential. Because: “You won’t get very far in science as a lone wolf,” she is convinced. Together with her colleagues, she wants to find out: What causes the immune system, which is actually supposed to protect us, to derail and thus damage us?

The scene of their research is the lung. “In the lungs, like everywhere else in the body, there are immune cells, and one type of immune cell is the macrophage. They are part of the innate immune system and their job is to render pathogens such as bacteria or viruses harmless. But that’s not all: if they encounter a pathogen, they release messenger substances that attract other immune cells. Like an alarm call. The immune reaction is intensified and inflammation develops,” explains Rittchen, explaining her research area. Oversimplified, of course, she adds with a laugh.

Stop unwanted reactions

Your goal is to find a way to stop these messenger substances. Because sometimes the immune system reacts disproportionately to a pathogen and makes everything worse. As part of the doctorate, Rittchen investigated substances that could prevent these undesirable reactions in the future. With asthma, for example, or – very recently – also with Covid-19. With these research results and the resulting doctoral thesis, the native of Carinthia recently completed her PhD studies with the highest distinction sub auspiciis.

Who accompanied and supported you on your way? “My supervisors, of course, my family, but also all my colleagues. The exchange with them was extremely important,” says Rittchen. The Krems University of Applied Sciences, where she completed her bachelor’s and master’s degree in biochemistry, had a particular influence on her. “The FH Krems is the reason why I am where I am today,” she is certain. “Broadening horizons and showing possibilities was very important there.” Whom she is also grateful to: “My sister and my roommate, who cooked me food when I came home late from the laboratory,” she says with a laugh.

Because research is anything but a nine-to-five job. “There are two things you need as a scientist in particular: tolerance for frustration and perseverance,” she is convinced. She has stamina. After completing her master’s degree, Rittchen went to the Medical University of Graz, where she began her doctoral studies in Molecular Fundamentals of Inflammation with the help of a scholarship from the Austrian Science Fund FWF. At the same time, a research group in Brisbane was working on the same issues as them – namely on the immune messenger substance called prostaglandin D2 and how to stop it. A few e-mails later, Rittchen flew to Australia, where she did research for six months, also financed by a grant. “Seeing how other people work in other parts of the world was hugely important to me,” she says. “It was a great time, but it was also very work-intensive.” Despite a job offer, the Carinthian didn’t want to stay there. Australia was too far away from her family, her friends and her warmblood gelding Tasman.

Research acute inflammation

And now? For the next six years, Sonja Rittchen has a position at the Institute of Immunology at Med-Uni Graz. There she wants to continue researching future therapy options for acute inflammation and gain a better understanding of the complex network of the immune system. In teamwork, of course.

To person

Sonja Rittle (29) studied Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at the FH Krems and Biochemistry and Molecular Biomedicine at the TU Graz. She then completed her doctorate at Med-Uni Graz sub auspiciis praesidentis. After her time as a postdoc at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Pulmonary Vascular Research in Graz, she is now back at Med-Uni Graz.

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(“Die Presse”, print edition, August 13, 2022)