Women’s infectious diseases focus of study for new center

The School of Medicine is launching the center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research (cWIDR), a new effort to study infectious diseases that preferentially affect women. The center focuses on issues including:

• microorganisms that cause urinary tract infections (UTIs) and other conditions that make urination and intercourse painful or difficult

• infections that lead to premature delivery and vaginitis

• potential contributing roles for microorganisms in life-threatening conditions such as cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative disorders and diabetes.

Scott Hultgren
Scott Hultgren

“Infectious diseases of women is a tremendously underserved area,” said Scott Hultgren, Ph.D., the Helen L. Stoever Professor of Molecular Microbiology and the center’s director and principal investigator. “UTIs, for example, are one of the most common bacterial infections in women. They’re not fatal, but we need new and improved therapeutics because they’re a very significant cause of suffering, lost work days and health-care expenses.”

The center continues a University tradition of innovation and leadership in microbiology and infectious diseases, Hultgren said. Stephen Beverley, Ph.D., the Marvin A. Brennecke Professor and head of molecular microbiology, founded the center’s predecessor, the Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR), in 1997. He recently stepped down as director of CIDR and designated Hultgren as his successor.

Given his research background in women’s health and infectious diseases, Hultgren decided to reconceptualize CIDR and its goals, altering the center’s name to reflect the changes.

The cWIDR is part of the University’s BioMed 21 initiative, which is focusing University efforts on speedy translation of laboratory discoveries into new approaches for diagnosis and treatment of patients.

Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, said studying gender-specific infections can reveal information that is helpful in a much broader range of diseases.

“Scott’s work with urinary tract infections has led to insight into how the bacteria that cause these infections sometimes defend themselves by cooperating to form a protective shield known as a biofilm,” Shapiro said. “Many common infections of both men and women employ this defense against antibiotics and the host immune system, and to improve treatment for these infections, we have to devise medicines that can penetrate this shield.”

Other major infectious disease issues specific to women include interstitial cystitis or painful bladder syndrome, a condition estimated to afflict hundreds of thousands of females per year. Symptoms are similar to urinary tract infections and include frequent, painful urination and pain during intercourse. Diagnosis and treatment are difficult because scientists don’t yet know the cause of the condition.

Oral and vaginal infections with streptococcus and other bacteria have been linked to premature delivery in pregnant women. Michael Caparon, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology and co-director of cWIDR, plans to bring in microbiologists and obstetricians to try to learn why and determine what can be done.

Fostering collaboration between different disciplines to create new perspectives on the big challenges of biomedicine is a primary goal of BioMed 21. Hultgren plans to establish connections and collaborations between his center and other research centers, noting the potential for synergy provided by the Center for Genome Sciences and other University research groups.

“We see the center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research as part of a multi-disciplinary network combining a powerful blend of microbial pathogenesis, genomics, structural biology, biochemistry and biophysics, and diverse imaging technologies,” Hultgren said.

As an example, Hultgren’s work with urinary tract infections led to detailed study of pili, fibers produced by infection-causing bacteria. Pili allow bacteria to adhere to and invade human tissues, and Hultgren’s laboratory recently found that they help hold bacteria together in biofilms. These discoveries made it possible to design molecules that block pili formation and may one day lead to improved treatments.

Researchers at cWIDR also will study whether microorganisms are playing a role in serious diseases not previously thought to be related to infection. As evidence of why a search for such connections might prove fruitful, Hultgren highlights the surprising discoveries that infectious agents are responsible for all stomach ulcers and most cervical cancers.

To accelerate the search for new treatments for infectious diseases, Hultgren has established close ties with a local biotech firm, Sequoia Sciences, and with Tom Ellenberger, Ph.D., the Raymond H. Wittcoff Professor and head of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics.

The new center and five new faculty positions will be supported in part by funding from the departments of Medicine, Molecular Microbiology, Infectious Diseases and Cardiology, as well as general medical school resources and donors.