The University of Technology, Sydney‘s (UTS)  ithree institute will collaborate with several US research teams in a new study to identify better diagnostic, vaccine and treatment targets for chlamydia and other sexually-transmitted infections.

This McCoy cell monolayer micrograph reveals a number of intracellular C. trachomatis inclusion bodies/CDC

Chlamydia trachomatis is the most common bacterial sexually transmitted infection in Australia and can lead to serious and costly health consequences, including infertility in women. Infection rates with chlamydia have more than tripled over the past decade.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the US National Institutes of Health has awarded US$10.7m for the five-year project, which brings together teams from the University of Maryland Schools of Dentistry and Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, the University of Virginia and UTS.

Applying state-of-the-art genomics-based technology, the study aims to identify novel molecular “biomarkers” of susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the ensuing disease severity, and also host protection from STIs and sexually-transmitted diseases.

Biomarkers can be measured in the body (or its products) as a means to predict and potentially influence pathways related to disease. They may reveal mechanisms of infection or disease that can be exploited as therapeutic or diagnostic targets.

“Improved diagnosis of chlamydia is critical to help improve health outcomes. Whilst most infections can be treated with antibiotics, a major barrier to diagnosis is that chlamydia infections are often asymptomatic so many who have it are unaware,” said the ithree institute’s Associate Professor Garry Myers, who will lead the Australian part of the five-year research collaboration.

Research suggests that 50 per cent of men and 70-80 per cent of women don’t get symptoms at all with a chlamydia infection.

Associate Professor Myers, an Australian who recently returned after 12 years in the USA, will direct a project that aims to identify miRNA-based biomarkers of chlamydia infection, as well as chlamydia/gonorrhea co-infection and pelvic inflammatory disease, with a specific focus on the translational potential of these biomarkers in clinical and public health.

“The ithree institute was set up with an international focus,” said institute Director Professor Ian Charles. “Attracting world-class talent such as Garry to return to Australia and join the battle against infectious disease is a testament to the tremendous team and facilities we have established here at ithree,” he said.

In addition to the biomarker research, Associate Professor Myers is also co-principal investigator on the genomics core for the overall grant, so will be directing the data collection and analysis for the entire grant.

“Developing cutting-edge genomic tools that are a part of this grant alongside the impressive technologies being invented by my colleagues at ithree will provide new opportunities to seek additional support and funding from Australian-based grant awarding bodies, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council, to ensure that Australian science continues to play an important role on the world stage,” Associate Professor Myers said.