How celery could help find new treatments for chlamydia
Chlamydia is the most frequently reported STI in Australia, and in about 70 per cent of cases there are no symptoms.
It is one also of the major causes of tubal infertility, which is a common reason women become infertile.
So where does celery come into this?
A novel method of using an enzyme from the stalk of celery is being used in experiments at UTS Science on chlamydia mutants, which may lead to better treatment of the STI.
Dr Willa Huston is leading the research, using the enzyme to analyse mutants (organisms with a new or different characteristic due to a mutation in its gene or chromosome), of chlamydia bacteria in order to find new targets for drugs.
Using the enzyme in a lab experiment proves that screening for chlamydial mutants can be done very cheaply.
“It’s something that plant biologists have known for a long time, but it’s only quite new that we use it in bacterial genetics, particularly the chlamydial genetics field,” Dr Huston said.
“The enzyme from celery provides a cheap and really cost effective way to do what would otherwise be a costly and labour intensive process.”
Dr Huston says there are potentially up to 10 per cent of women seeking IVF 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.
“The organism is very hard to use traditional research methods on, including making mutants. It’s very difficult compared to how we do it in other organisms,” Dr Huston said.
“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.”
Chlamydia in koalas is also examined by the team, which Dr Huston believes is just as important, if not more, than research into the human infection.
“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. We do very similar work including genetics and mutations to understand koala chlamydia,” Dr Huston said.
As well as habitat destruction, chlamydia is having a devastating impact on koala populations, with some infections becoming so severe it results in infertility, blindness and even death.
“The condition is extremely painful and very difficult to treat,” Dr Huston said. “Unfortunately there are limited drugs that work on koala chlamydia and the supply of these drugs is limited. Therefore we urgently need to develop new drugs to treat chlamydia in koalas and help save our national icon.”
For science students, the experience of using something simple like celery to address what seems like a complex problem in a scientific experiment is invaluable, according to Dr Huston.
Majca Tongacan spent her summer in 2015-16 completing a research project as part of her undergraduate degree. She says the experience was invaluable learning opportunity which demonstrated that not every problem requires a complex answer.
“When one thinks about science the stereotype is that we're in the lab mixing complex chemicals and undertaking complicated experiments, which is true most of the time,” Majca said. “But sometimes the starting point begins at somewhere as simple as a piece of celery.
“When I first started, many of the people I talked to described the experiment as bucket chemistry and in actuality the experimental process is very straightforward and practical for the enzyme we were isolating.”
Dr Huston will be presenting on her research into chlamydia in koalas with colleague, Dr Jonathan Webb at UTS Science in Focus.