The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has funded four cooperative research centers (U19 CRCs) to develop vaccines for chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea. Toni Darville, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases, vice chair of pediatric research, and professor of pediatrics and microbiology & immunology, is the principal investigator for one of the CRCs. Her team was awarded a five-year, $10.7 million grant to develop a vaccine for chlamydia. Three UNC-Chapel Hill faculty are involved in this research project: Nilu Goonetilleke, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology & immunology; Catherine O’Connell, PhD, clinical associate professor of pediatrics; and Xiaojing Zheng, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics.
In addition, UNC researchers are sub-recipients of two of NIAID’s three other STI vaccine CRCs, including an $11-million project to identify a syphilis vaccine candidate and a $10.7 million project to identify a gonorrheal vaccine candidate. The UNC investigators for these two grants are Arlene Sena, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine; Jonathan Parr, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine; Marcia Hobbs, PhD, professor of medicine and microbiology & immunology; Alex Duncan, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine, and Rob Nicholas, PhD, professor of pharmacology.
Chlamydia is the most prevalent bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the world. It can cause infertility and chronic pelvic pain in women, and infection has been linked to an increased risk for ovarian cancer. There is no vaccine to prevent infection.
“Chlamydia is asymptomatic in 90 percent of men and women, leading to extremely high rates of infection,” said Darville, who is scientific director of the UNC Children’s Research Institute and a member of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases. “People don’t know they are infected, which is why a vaccine to prevent infection is so important. Women develop silent chronic infection and then present with infertility.”