NIH Awards $12.5 Million for Center on Sexually Transmitted Infections

Issue Date: 
November 30, 2009
Toni DarvilleToni Darville

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have received a $12.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish the UPMC Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) Cooperative Research Center.

The center will be led by principal investigator Toni Darville, a professor of pediatrics and immunology in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Darville’s laboratory at Children’s Hospital is internationally recognized for its research related to chlamydial infections.

Scientists in the center will focus their research, based at Children’s Hospital, the Magee-Womens Research Institute, and the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences in Pitt’s School of Medicine, on the prevention of female reproductive tract complications caused by sexually transmitted infections. Their research will be funded through a five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“This center will bring together many promising research initiatives already under way at Children’s Hospital and the Magee-Womens Research Institute. And the center is led by scientists with many years of experience leading basic science and clinical research trials related to sexually transmitted diseases,” Darville said. “Through our collaboration, we hope to speed the development of interventions that will limit or prevent genital tract disease in millions of women worldwide and ultimately limit ectopic pregnancy and protect fertility.”

The research projects will focus on bacterial infections of the female upper genital tract that produce pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PID is a common and serious complication of some sexually transmitted pathogens, especially chlamydia and gonorrhea. It can damage the fallopian tubes and tissues in and near the uterus and ovaries and can lead to serious consequences, including infertility, ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy in the fallopian tube or elsewhere outside of the womb), abscess formation, and chronic pelvic pain.

Each year in the United States, it is estimated that more than a million women experience an episode of acute PID. More than 100,000 women become infertile each year as a result of PID, and a large proportion of the ectopic pregnancies that occur every year are because of PID complications.

The UPMC STI Cooperative Research Center will consist of four projects. The first project will be led by Harold Wiesenfeld, director of the Division of Reproductive Infectious Diseases in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and associate investigator at Magee-Womens Research Institute. The goal of this project is to determine the importance of anti-anaerobic therapy in the treatment of women with PID.

The second project will be led by Sharon Hillier, professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, and of microbiology and molecular genetics in Pitt’s School of Medicine and director of reproductive infectious disease research at Magee-Womens Research Institute. The goal of this project is to identify novel bacteria that might play a role in the development of PID.

The third project will be led by Darville. The goal of this project is to determine the role of Toll-like receptor 2 signaling in innate and adaptive responses to chlamydiae. Toll-like receptor 2 is a protein important in the innate immune system.

Project four will be led by Thomas Cherpes, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences in Pitt’s School of Medicine and a researcher at Magee-Womens Research Institute. The goal of this project is to identify the specific lymphocyte-mediated immune responses most strongly associated with protection against Chlamydia trachomatis infection and containment of the pathogen to the lower genital tract in a cohort of women at high risk for PID.

Darville is considered one of the world’s foremost researchers of Chlamydia trachomatis, a bacterium that is the most frequently reported cause of sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Because symptoms are usually mild or absent, it can damage a woman’s reproductive organs and cause irreversible damage, including infertility, before a woman ever recognizes a problem.