Newcastle researchers have contributed to the discovery of a protein in the female reproductive tract that protects against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as chlamydia and herpes simplex virus (HSV).
An estimated 450 million people worldwide are newly infected with STDs each year. Chlamydia has the highest infection rate of all the sexually transmitted infections (STIs) reported in Australia.
The research, published today in the prestigious journal Science, was led by Professor Paul Hertzog at the Monash Institute of Medical Research (MIMR) in collaboration with the University of Newcastle’s Professor Phil Hansbro* and his team, including Jay Horvat and Jemma Mayall.
The team discovered a protein, which they called Interferon epsilon (IFNe), and showed it plays an important role in protecting females against infections. The discovery could have clinical potential to determine which women may be more or less susceptible to disease such as STIs or to boost protective immunity. IFNe could also potentially be used to treat STIs or other inflammatory diseases.
The Newcastle researchers characterised the role of IFNe in protecting against chlamydia.
“Infection is more serious when progesterone levels are high and estrogen levels are low. IFNe levels are low in the presence of progesterone and high in the presence of estrogen,” Professor Hansbro said.
“The lack of IFNe during times of low estrogen levels leads to more serious infection that moves up the reproductive tract and affects the uterus and ovaries. This results in damage to the upper reproductive tract and is likely to contribute to infertility in women.
“IFNe is produced almost exclusively by the inner surface of the female reproductive tract. It protects against infection by promoting the movement of immune cells into the area that counters the infection.
“Since this protein protects against chlamydia infection we may be able to use it to prevent chlamydia infections or to treat people once they become infected.”
Prof Hertzog said STIs were a critical global health and socioeconomic problem and it was likely the protein discovery would be important for other infectious diseases like HIV and HPV.
According to the 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics, chlamydia infection rates have more than tripled over the past decade. The disease affects more women than men, with more than 46,600 women aged over 15 diagnosed compared to 33,200 men aged 15 and over.
Professor Hertzog said the next step was to work towards clinical studies within the next five years.
“We are also keen to see whether this work can be applied across other diseases including cancer, female reproductive tract related disorders such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease, as well as other non reproductive tract diseases.”
The research was done in collaboration with partners at other departments of Monash University, the University of Adelaide, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the University of Oklahoma.
* Professor Hansbro leads the University of Newcastle’s Microbiology, Asthma and Airways Research Group in the Centre for Asthma and Respiratory Disease. It conducts research in collaboration with the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) Viruses, Infections/Immunity, Vaccines and Asthma Research Program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.