How Katie's illness drives her search for better medication

AN RGS past pupil who suffered a debilitating heart condition while on the other side of the world during lockdown is undertaking vital research which could help other people suffering similar illnesses.

Katie Treasure, now well on the way to recovery, was put on strong medication to treat her pericarditis, a rare condition which causes inflammation of the lining of the heart.

“I was diagnosed during one of Melbourne’s harshest lockdowns and hospital visits and scans were quite traumatic as I didn’t know what was wrong and couldn’t have anyone with me due to COVID restrictions.

“My parents were also unable to physically support me as they were in the UK and Australia’s borders remained closed.”

Katie suffered shortness of breath, heart palpitations and chest pain: “I was unable to climb a flight of stairs, couldn’t talk without being out of breath and couldn’t do any of the normal stuff such as walking the dog or carrying groceries, with my part-time bar work untenable.

“I’m very much on the mend now, but for nearly a year, all these simple tasks were practically impossible.”

Ironically, she was just two weeks into starting her PhD at Monash University in Melbourne, exploring how natural compounds can be used to treat chronic inflammatory conditions, rather than the current medications she says are ‘ineffective’.

“I was on some pretty shocking medication – which ironically is one of the drugs I am now focusing some of my research around!”

She was taking prednisone, a type of steroid. “Steroids are a great medication in the short term for instances like a bad bug bite or short-term infection when you want to reduce inflammation from pretty much any source. However, at the high dose and prolonged amount of time I was taking it for, it came with some very nasty side effects including significant weight gain, immunosuppression (not ideal during a pandemic!), and increased risk of osteoporosis and diabetes, amongst others.

“For many people who have chronic inflammatory or autoimmune conditions, for example rheumatoid arthritis, there isn’t currently an affordable drug alternative which can be taken for a sustained period without horrible side effects.

“My research looks at how natural compounds found in plants can be used to treat the part of the immune response which goes wrong in people with lifelong inflammatory diseases who suffer from the negative side effects of their medication.

“Ideally, patients would be able to decrease the dose of steroid while increasing their intake of the natural compound.

“What’s great about these natural compounds is that they are found in low doses in plant-based foods that are widely consumed (for example broccoli), so we know general consumption is safe.

“And with careful research and trials, researchers may be able to find a way to use these compounds in combination with steroids.”

It was following her first degree in immunology at the University of Glasgow, including an exchange year at the University of Melbourne, which coincided with lockdown, that Katie, now 26, was accepted to study for a PhD at Monash, researching the compounds found in plants and understanding how these may improve inflammation in the body.

“It was very challenging navigating myself through multiple lockdowns in Melbourne while completing my degree with Glasgow online, and at times difficult to see the goal I was working towards - being accepted onto my PhD programme in Melbourne,” she says.

Since then, Katie, who took chemistry, biology and Classics at A-level in 2016 before heading off on a gap year volunteering on a shark marine conservation project in Fiji, was thrilled to have her first scientific paper published.

Her review, entitled ‘Exploring the anti-inflammatory activity of sulforaphane’ was published in the internationally recognised journal Immunology and Cell Biology.

She has also presented her work at conferences in both Melbourne and Auckland, New Zealand, including at the Australian and New Zealand Society for Immunology and at the Joint conference of the Nutrition Societies of New Zealand and Australia.

Adventurous Katie, who took part in RGS’s World Challenge trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua in fifth form urges other students: “Be open to change and any opportunity that may come your way. I never thought when I moved to Melbourne for my exchange year I would still be here, however, in terms of my career development, it was the best thing I could have done.

“I am quite proud of managing to navigate moving to Australia, particularly during COVID times, and working it into my dream profession. Outside university life in Melbourne there’s always something on. During summer we host the Australian Open and Formula One and there are always concerts (I’ve been lucky enough to score Taylor Swift tickets)! I’m also a big foodie and there is an endless supply of coffee shops, restaurants and bars to try. It’s a great city with so much to offer.

“What I love about my PhD is how varied my days are. Day to day, I can spend a lot of time in a lab, doing experiments and analysing results. When not in a lab, I’m reading papers, trying to understand the field of research I am working in or writing up my results to submit for publication.”

Katie also teaches at the university: “So I spend some time preparing to deliver workshops and practical classes and marking essays and lab reports.”

Although it can be frustrating when an experiment that has taken a lot of preparation doesn’t work out as expected, she says she enjoys the flexibility of her working hours: “Now that COVID restrictions have eased, the opportunity to travel and present my work to other researchers is also a big bonus.”

She hopes to complete her thesis in the mid-2025 and find a post-doctorate university position in Australia, New Zealand or maybe even Canada.

Of course, she does miss Yorkshire: “Around Christmas time, the weather is much hotter in Australia, as it’s summer here, and a BBQ on the beach on Christmas Day just doesn’t feel right!”