Hartwell Foundation Selects Pitt Medical Science Investigator Darville to Receive Individual Biomedical Research Award

Issue Date: 
June 9, 2008

Darville only 2nd woman to receive this award

Lee Antoinette Darville—a professor in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and the Department of Immunology in Pitt’s School of Medicine and a physician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC—will be one of 12 medical research scientists to receive a 2007 Individual Biomedical Research Award from The Hartwell Foundation.

This is the second consecutive year that a Pitt faculty member has been selected to receive this prestigious award; last year, Gary A. Silverman—professor of pediatrics in the Pitt School of Medicine and chief of the Division of Neonatology and Developmental Biology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC—was selected to be in the inaugural class of Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award recipients.

Darville was selected for her research project titled “Development of Live Attenuated Vaccines Against Chlamydial Eye and Genital Tract Disease.” The ultimate goal of Darville’s research is to develop a vaccine to protect against chlamydial infection-induced infertility and blindness. Darville was chosen from among 42 research scientists representing 11 institutions. She is one of only two women scientists to be named a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award recipient in the two years of the award competition.

Earlier during 2007-08, The Hartwell Foundation named the University of Pittsburgh a top-10 biomedical research center of excellence for the second year in a row. Other institutions receiving the most-recent Hartwell Top 10 designation were Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the University of Michigan, the University of California at San Diego, Cornell University, and the University of Virginia. Boston University was selected at-large by the Foundation for limited participation.

“We are honored to once again be included in such distinguished company,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “We also are pleased that, based upon the rigorous standards which The Hartwell Foundation uses to select its research centers and its award recipients, Pitt has again been recognized for both our significant achievements and future potential in biomedical and bioengineering education and research.”

The Hartwell Foundation, based in Memphis, Tenn., provides Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award recipients $100,000 per year for three years for innovative and cutting-edge biomedical applied biomedical research that potentially benefits children. The foundation seeks to fund early-stage research projects that have not yet qualified for funding from traditional sources.

Foundation president Frederick A. Dombrose explains that the purpose of the awards is to inspire innovation and achievement. To best realize those objectives, Dombrose says, The Hartwell Foundation puts a great deal of time into narrowing the field of eligible research centers before even beginning to consider which individuals will receive the awards.

“We look for institutions who share our values regarding the importance of improving children’s health. We also consider the quality, strength, and scope of their medical school and biomedical engineering program, as well as the ongoing biomedical research,” says Dombrose.

“We want to know that the institutions we select will make a commitment to provide the necessary resources to support the individual investigator in a way that can foster successful collaboration and truly facilitate a rapid clinical application of the research results,” Dombrose adds.

Darville received a BA degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1983 and an MD degree in 1987 at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where she did her residency in pediatrics from 1987 to 1990, had a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases from 1990 to 1993, and, beginning in 1993, was a faculty member for 14 years. She joined the Pitt School of Medicine faculty in 2007.

Chlamydia trachomatis, which Darville will study as a potential vaccine, is the leading cause of bacterial sexually transmitted infections in the United States, with an estimated annual incidence of at least three million cases and the impact of related health care costs exceeding $2 billion per year. Young girls 15 to 19 years old represent 46 percent of infections, with as many as one in 10 adolescent girls testing positive for chlamydial infection. Worse, most infected individuals are asymptomatic and remain undiagnosed and untreated. Antibiotic therapy will eliminate the infection, but it does not eliminate the silent complications of established pathology, including chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, infertility, spontaneous abortion, premature births, postnatal pneumonia, and eye infections.

Using genetically defined mouse strains that exhibited differential susceptibilities to chlamydia disease, Darville has determined that certain immune responses are protective, whereas others lead to disease. Based on these insights, Darville and her collaborator made the exciting discovery that creates a chlamydia strain attenuated in its ability to cause disease but capable of eliciting a protective immune response. Darville proposes that if the innovation is as effective in guinea pigs as it is in mice, then such strains of chlamydia should be useful candidates for antichlamydial vaccines in humans. Her research addresses the compelling need to combat this disease with more than aftercare.

As one of the institutions that fully participated in the Hartwell process, Pitt also was able to select one of its young biomedical investigators to receive a $100,000 two-year post-doctoral fellowship. This year, the fellowship was awarded to Drew D. Dudgeon, Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, under the mentorship of John S. Lazo, director of the Institute for Drug Discovery, School of Medicine. Dudgeon will screen a diverse chemical library of compounds that may enhance the ability of certain proteins to act as tumor suppressors and kill cancer cells. The Hartwell Fellowship is intended to support scientists in the early stages of their biomedical research careers by enabling them to pursue further specialized training as part of their career development.

Silverman received the 2006 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research award to study a biochemical abnormality of alpha-1-Antitrypsin protein that is a commonly inherited genetic defect and the leading cause of liver transplantation in children. The defect involves misfolding of the molecule shortly after its synthesis in the liver. His innovation was high throughput screening of small-molecule drugs in a unique animal model system, the transparent worm C. elegans. Using green fluorescent reporter proteins, he seeks to identify the underlying genetic components that contribute to complex human disease processes involving misfolded proteins and organ damage. Potential future applications of Silverman’s approach extend to research on emphysema, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ALS, and prion diseases.

Timothy M. Maul was selected by Pitt to receive the $100,000 two-year 2006 Hartwell Fellowship for his research on pediatric circulatory support. Maul conducts research in the Department of Surgery in Pitt’s School of Medicine and the Department of Bioengineering in Pitt’s School of Engineering under the mentorship of William R. Wagner, deputy director of the Pitt-UPMC McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and professor of surgery, bioengineering, and chemical engineering at Pitt.

For more information on The Hartwell Foundation, visit www.thehartwellfoundation.org.