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U of Maryland Wins $10.7M for STI/STD Center, Omics Research Projects

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The University of Maryland's Schools of Dentistry and Medicine said today they have jointly received a $10.7 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to use omics methods to identify molecular biomarkers related to sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

The schools plan to investigate host and pathogen genetics involved in Chlamydia and gonorrhea, study the urogenital polymicrobial microbiome, and hunt for markers that can indicate susceptibility to STIs and disease severity, as well as markers of protection from STIs and STDs.

The grant will establish a Cooperative Research Center on Sexually Transmitted Infection (CRC-STI), one of five funded by NIAID, which will be led by both the dental and medical schools. The funding also renews a previous $12 million, five-year NIAID-funded program at the university, but represents a "new direction" for the research, U of M said.

The long-term aim of the program will be to develop methods and strategies for lowering the incidence of STIs and STDs, particularly Chlamydia and gonorrhea, which impact 2.8 million and 820,000 Americans each year, respectively. These STDs also cause most of the 750,000 cases of pelvic inflammatory disease, which causes female infertility and ectopic pregnancy, among other conditions, the university said.

Co-principal investigator Jacques Ravel, associate director for genomics at the university's Institute for Genome Sciences, said in a statement that this project marks "the first time that a comprehensive systems biology" approach will be used to study STDs and to develop methods to prognose, diagnose, prevent, and treat them.

"By looking at how human genetics and the microbiome affect and influence infections in humans, we can gain a much better understanding of how to protect against these types of infection, which is critical for improving public health," Ravel said.

"We will be identifying human and microbial biomarkers that will tell us who is most susceptible to infection, [and] who is most susceptible to severe disease, even in the absence of symptoms," added Patrik Bavoil, chair of the Department of Microbial Pathogenesis in the School of Dentistry. "These biomarkers could also provide us with new targets for new ways to prevent and treat STIs and STDs long before these microbes have a chance to endanger a woman's reproductive health."

The CRC-STI, which will involve partnerships with researchers at institutions beyond U of M, will pursue three projects.

In one effort, two investigators from Duke University will explore the role of human genetic variants in interactions between the host microbiota and the STI pathogens. They propose that host genetics may be involved in determining susceptibility to STIs and disease severity.

In another study, Bavoil will work with Garry Myers, an associate professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, to identify antibody and miRNA biomarkers for Chlamydia infection, Chlamydia and gonorrhea co-infection, and pelvic inflammatory disease. They plan to focus on the translational potential value these biomarkers may have for clinical and public health.

Another project, directed by Ravel, will use a systems biology approach to identify biomarkers of the vaginal and penile microbiomes, and the genetic variation of hosts and pathogens that are associated with increased or decreased risks of infection by Chlamydia, gonorrhea, or both.

All of these projects will be supported by a genomics core, led by Ravel, affiliated with the Genomics Resource Center and Informatics Resource Center at the IGS.

The program also will rely on a clinical core and multiple STI Network Groups (STING). These groups will consist of networks of sexual partners in which at least one partner is infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea. These participants will provide clinical specimens that U of M and its partners will study in search of novel molecular markers for STI risk and for use in new therapeutic approaches for treating infections.

The studies also will involve researchers at the Kirby Institute, the University of Virginia, Loyola University Chicago, and Johns Hopkins University.

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