A new way to save koalasDr Willa Huston

Pictured: Researcher Dr Willa Huston

Human infertility research crosses the species barrier to give new hope for saving koalas

Chlamydia is the most frequently reported STI in Australia, and in about 70 per cent of cases there are no symptoms. It is one of the major causes of tubal infertility, which is a common reason women become infertile. But did you know that chlamydia is also having a devastating impact on koala populations?

Dr Willa Huston, a Molecular Microbiologist at UTS Science, is researching new treatments to tackle chlamydia. Her research on infertility in women caused by chlamydia resulted in the discovery of a new drug-like molecule that might be the solution to this problem in koalas. This exciting cross-over of research in the lab from humans to koalas could be an innovative solution to both problems. 

“We do very similar work including genetics and mutations to understand koala chlamydia, so we think that a lot of what we’re learning in humans can be translated into the very serious health problem we have with chlamydia in koalas,” Dr Huston said.

In addition to habitat destruction, wild dogs and being hit by cars, chlamydia is becoming a major threat to koala populations. Infections can cause blindness, infertility and ‘wet bottom’ disease—an extremely painful and very difficult condition to treat.

“We urgently need to develop new drugs to treat chlamydia in koalas before it’s too late.”

“Unfortunately there are limited drugs that work on koala chlamydia and the supply of these drugs is limited,” Dr Huston said. “We urgently need to develop new drugs to treat chlamydia in koalas before it’s too late.”

Now that Dr Huston’s team has discovered the new drug-like molecule, the next stage of the research will be to improve the molecule to a point at which it can be administered to koalas with chlamydial disease.

As well as finding new treatments to help save our national icon, Dr Huston is also researching how chlamydia causes infertility in women. She says there are potentially up to 10 per cent of women seeking IVF who have chlamydial related infertility in Australia.

“At the moment it’s a really common bacterial pathogen. There is a good antibiotic therapy but women don’t often have the therapy because they don’t know they have chlamydia.

“We suspect that these women, who never know they had the infection and never got treated, are often the ones who end up finding out they are infertile later in their lives.”

Dr Huston says their research attempts to understand the chlamydia trachomatis human pathogen by exploring its properties and looking at how it causes infertility in women. The research aims to find new ways to prevent the initial infection from getting to that stage.

“We’re sort of doing a double approach, where we’re trying to understand the process early so we can develop new preventatives, but at the same time trying to find a way to diagnose it more easily because at the moment the diagnosis uses painful surgical techniques.”

Story: Rebecca Gallegos and Declan Bowring
Image: Vanessa Valenzuela Davie