Professor Ranjeny Thomas

MD, FRACP, MBBS

Arthritis Qld Chair of Rheumatology

About me

When she was a child, Ranjeny Thomas didn’t want to be a scientist.  She confesses she was drawn instead to the creative arts.  But as it turns out, it is precisely her natural creativity, combined with a love of a good mystery, which has led her to become one of Australia’s foremost immunologists.

As a student at the University of Western Australia (UWA), Thomas studied medicine primarily for the career options it offered, but soon found herself searching for a subject that would satisfy both her creativity and curiosity.  She found it during her rheumatology training when a visiting Immunology Fellow was invited to help her study group.  

“A whole new world opened up to me,” she says. Thomas’ interest in immunology led her to undertake a doctorate at UWA where she discovered her niche at the intersection of laboratory research and clinical Rheumatology practice.As her work progressed, the puzzle of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) became even more enticing.  What was causing the immune system to turn on benign tissues in the body? Her search for a solution led her to the laboratory of the preeminent US immunologist Peter Lipsky at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.“Peter told me I had to work on healthy humans in order to understand RA, and suggested I look at dendritic cells.”Dendritic cells (DCs) are part of the immune system’s early response to invasion. They engulf intruders, like bacteria or viruses, and break them down into small parts, called antigens. The DC then presents the antigens on its surface, and uses them to activate helper T cells, which in turn alert the rest of the immune system.At the time, little was known about the role DCs play in autoimmune diseases, but Thomas made the crucial discovery that DCs help trigger RA by mistaking joint tissue as foreign and erroneously ‘teaching’ T cells to attack.  After Thomas returned to Australia she reasoned that if DCs were part of the problem, they could be part of the solution.   In 2003, at University of Queensland’s Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research, she and her colleagues discovered that a protein called RelB acts as the switch that allows DCs to teach the immune system to attack.They then found a way to modify DCs to silence the immune system.  Thomas’ new goal was to find a way to use dendritic cells in a therapy for RA. This breakthrough led to the eventual development of a vaccine technology, which turns off the unwanted immune response in RA. In 2005 she founded the Uniquest-owned spin-off company Dendright to focus on commercial development of this technology. UniQuest recently announced a strategic research collaboration agreement with Janssen-Cilag Pty Ltd in Australia, to develop the RA vaccine technology.Ranjeny Thomas, now Professor of Rheumatology at UQ and head of the Autoimmunity Division at the UQ Diamantina Institute, continues to work on dendritic cells and autoimmune diseases.  In addition to her progress in RA, her work has advanced understanding of diabetes and ankylosing spondylitis.  Already this has led her to develop both a diagnostic test for juvenile diabetes.Thomas looks forward to finding more creative ways to unlock the mysteries of the immune system and develop new treatments for autoimmune disease.“Immunology research has reached a very exciting stage, where the development of new ‘designer therapies’ for prevention and treatment of inflammatory diseases that affect the life of millions of people across the world is becoming a real possibility. It’s both a privilege and an enormous challenge to be a part of that!”

 

Projects

Understanding the molecular control of dendritic cell function in tolerance

Initiation of Inflammatory Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis antigen-specific therapy

Type 1 (Juvenile) Diabetes Innate Immunity: mouse models and human longitudinal study

Use of statins to reduce atherosclerosis in early rheumatoid arthritis

Publications

Recent Publications

  1. Hannawi S, Haluska B, Marwick TH, and R Thomas. Atherosclerotic disease is increased in recent onset rheumatoid arthritis: a critical role for inflammation. Arthritis Res Ther 2007, 9:R116.
  2. Capini C, Jaturanpinyo M, Chang HI, Mutalik S, Street S, O’Sullivan BJ, Davies NM and R Thomas. Antigen-specific suppression of inflammatory arthritis using liposomes. J Immunol 2009 182:3556-65
  3. Isomura I, Palmer S, Grumont RJ, Bunting K, Hoyne G, Wilkinson N, Banerjee A, Proietto A, Gugasyan R, Li W, McNally A, Steptoe R, Thomas R, Shannon MF and S Gerondakis. c-Rel is required for the development of thymic Foxp3+ CD4 regulatory T cells. J Exp Med 2009, 206:3001-14.
  4. Bertin-Maghit S, Pang D, O’Sullivan BJ , Best S, Duggan E, Paul S, Thomas HE, Kay TWH, Harrison LC, Steptoe R* and R Thomas*. IL-1β produced in response to islet autoantigen presentation differentiates T-helper 17 cells at the expense of regulatory T cells: implications for the timing of tolerizing   immunotherapy. Diabetes 2011; 60:248-57
  5. O’Sullivan BJ*, Pai S*, Street S, An X, MacDonald KP, Wong M, Strutton G, Gerondakis S, Steptoe    RJ, Hill GR and R Thomas. ­Immunotherapy with costimulatory dendritic cells to control autoimmune inflammation. J Immunol 2011;187:4018-30
  6. Shklovskaya E, O’Sullivan BJ, Ng LG, Roediger B, Thomas R, Weninger W and B Fazekas de St Groth. Langerhans cells are pre-committed to immune tolerance induction. Proc Natl Acad USA 2011;108:18049-18054
  7. Ruutu M, Thomas G, Steck Roland, Degli-Esposti, MA, Zinkernagel MS, Alexander K, Velasco J, Strutton G, Tran A, Pettit A, Benham H, Rehaume L, Wilson RJ, Kikly K, Davies J, McGuckin M, Brown MA and R Thomas. Beta-glucan triggers spondyloarthropathy and Crohn’s-like ileitis in SKG mice. Arthritis Rheum 2012, 64:2211-22.
  8. Irvine K, Gallego P, An X, Denny J, Baskerville T, Flynn S, Thomas G, Wells C, Harris M, Cotterill A and R Thomas. Peripheral blood monocyte gene expression profile clinically stratifies patients with recent onset Type 1 Diabetes. Diabetes     2012, 61:1281-1290
  9. Law SC, Street S, Yu CHA, Capini C, Ramnoruth S, Nel HJ, van Gorp E, Hyde C, Lau K, Purcell AW and R Thomas. T cell autoreactivity to citrullinated autoantigenic peptides in rheumatoid arthritis patients carrying HLA-DRB1 shared epitope alleles. Arthritis Res Ther 2012;14:R118
  10. Thomas R. Dendritic cells and the promise of antigen-specific therapy in rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Res Ther 2013, 15:204