The research could revolutionise treatments for conditions such as bird flu, arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease, by using a mechanism that gives the human body a more rapid response to infections.
The discovery, made by four researchers from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), will be published in the December 2nd edition of the world's leading scientific journal Science.
It involves cells in the front line of defence against infection, called macrophages, releasing messengers to fight and kill disease-causing microbes.
IMB researchers Professor Jennifer Stow, Dr Rachael Murray, Mr Jason Kay and Mr Daniele Sangermani discovered macrophages use a single pathway to orchestrate two different responses to disease.
Professor Stow said when disease-causing microbes infect the body, macrophages respond by engulfing and killing the microbes.
"The cells also release chemical messengers to boost immunity," Professor Stow said.
She said the research was made possible by advanced technologies at the IMB such as live cell microscopy and gene analysis, which are unique in Queensland.
"By using these technologies we were able to show, for the first time, both actions occur simultaneously and a common cellular pathway is used for releasing messengers and for eating microbes," she said.
"This adaptation ensures the whole immune system responds to an infection in the most efficient and rapid way possible.
"In some situations, this clever time-saving device could be a life-saver."
Professor Stow said the study also looked at why having a "hair-trigger" immune response is a dangerous thing.
She said these chemical messengers were among the agents that caused patients to die from acute infections like bird flu and to acquire chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. They are also behind the muscle wasting experienced by patients with cancer.
Chronic inflammatory disorders are a substantial burden in social and economic terms for the Australian community.
Arthritis alone afflicts 3.4 million Australians and the financial costs were more than $19.25 billion in 2004.
"This discovery provides new and exciting avenues for drug development," Professor Stow said.
"Knowledge of the pathway will help find strategies to combat both acute infection and chronic inflammation and to explore new avenues for treatment of cancer.
"Basic research findings such as this underpin all medical research but there is still a long way to go (upwards of 10 years) until any new drugs begin to emerge on the market."