Turning the Tables on Chlamydia

Garry Myers

Associate Professor Garry Myers is the first to admit Chlamydia is not exactly dinner party conversation, but his team of researchers at UTS’ ithree Institute are using genome-scale sequencing which could lead to new and effective treatments – something very much worth discussing.

Myers aims in particular to treat Chlamydia conjunctivitis in babies, considered the largest infectious cause of blindness in the world.

Myers’ team is collaborating with Dr Willa Huston, a Senior lecturer at UTS who studies Chlamydial infertility using molecular tools and actively works with IVF clinics.

Together, they are developing anti-fibrotic therapies to treat Chlamydial scarring. With more funding, they hope to have a major breakthrough that will ultimately lead to saving people from preventable blindness and infertility.

“The really important issue is not the Chlamydia itself but the scarring it causes and the subsequent damage,” explains Myers.

To understand his research, you have to look at the disease’s transmission: genital Chlamydia trachomatis is the most common bacterial Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI), and it’s transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex or vaginally during birth from mother to baby.

In these cases, the baby develops the second arm of the disease, Chlamydia conjunctivitis, a trachoma-like disease. Poor hygiene and limited access to health care, usually found in developing world conditions, also causes trachoma – a bacterial infection of the eye – to spread.

In trachoma, the immune response to the infection scars the mucus membrane inside the eyelid and makes the eyelashes turn in, which in turn scratches the cornea and leads to blindness.

With genital Chlamydia, the infection travels up a woman’s cervix to her fallopian tubes, and ensuing scar tissue can block the tubes and lead to dangerous ectopic pregnancy or even infertility. The big problem is that patients show no symptoms and only face disease outcomes years later.

“We are looking at the molecular basis of why this scar tissue forms,” Myers says. “We have found through deep sequencing, two terabytes in fact, that when Chlamydia irritates the body then the immune system goes haywire; it has an abnormal response to the infection.”

He likens it to the audio squeal you get when you put two microphones together to form a feedback loop; the cells infected by Chlamydia express and produce collagen as a wound response. This makes immune cells react and chew up the collagens into fragments which induce more and more of an immune reaction.

The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but the feedback loop continues regardless, potentially leading to infertility years later.

“So we are trying to find genetic biomarkers in the blood of women who are more likely to have such a big immune reaction,” Myers says. “Then we are going to try get in early with drugs that can arrest that fibrotic response before much scarring occurs and even reverse its effects.”

Myers’ research began more than a decade ago in the US studying genomes, first at The Institute for Genome Research from 2002-2007 and then as co-founder of the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. He returned to UTS in 2014 to set up his current research group.

Words by Melinda Ham