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Narrowing the Field
CHORI Scientist Identify Six Key Genes Involved in Chlamydia Pneumoniae Infection

Senior scientist Deborah Dean, MD, MPH, of CHORI’s Center for Immunobiology and Vaccine Development, has long been an expert in the field of Chlamydiaceae, a family of intracellular bacterial pathogens that are responsible for a diversity of mild to severe human diseases. Utilizing what is referred to as a systems biology approach, Dr. Dean’s most recent research has revealed groundbreaking insights into the mechanisms of infection of one of these bacteria: Chlamydia pneumoniae.

“Looking at the pathways and networks that an organism might trigger is another way of going about discovering what is actually going on,” explains Dr. Dean. “Ours is not the first study to use a systems biology approach to study a pathogen, but it is the first time anyone has taken this approach to unravel the networks triggered by C pneumoniae, and that’s what makes our study significant.”

Since the identification of C. pneumoniae as its own species of Chlamydiaceae in 1989, it has been implicated as the culprit for a variety of health issues, from asthma, to respiratory tract infections and even atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque in the arteries.

“When I first heard of the connection between atherosclerosis and C. pneumoniae, I was skeptical, but research, including in my own lab, has borne out that connection,” Dr. Dean explains.

“It isn’t that much of a stretch as you would think for the organism to get into the lungs, migrate from the lungs to the blood, from the blood into compromised tissues, and then release the organism to infect other cells in the tissue, including the coronary arteries involved in heart disease.”

While there are a variety of studies still teasing out the connection between C. pneumoniae and heart disease, and whether or not the infection occurs because there is already damage to the arteries or is an instigator in that damage, conclusive serologic studies suggest that by the time people reach adulthood, 90 percent of them have been exposed to the organism, most likely in the more common form of a respiratory tract infection, including simple cold-like symptoms.

“As a respiratory pathogen, you can imagine that it’s going to spread. People cough, eject the organism and pass it on to someone else. It may not cause pneumonia, but it certainly can result in a respiratory infection,” Dr. Dean says.

As a latecomer to be identified as part of the Chlamydiaceae family, C. pneumoniae is still a fairly poorly understood pathogen.

“Although C. pneumoniae wasn’t discovered until just 20 years ago, which is a relatively short period of time from a research perspective, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist before then,” explains Dr. Dean.

“What it does mean is that there is still a lot we don’t know about the organism. Whenever you discover a new pathogen, there is a lag time in terms of figuring out the spectrum of diseases caused by the organism and the pathogenesis of those diseases.”

Read More About Dr. Dean's C. Pneumoniae Discoveries

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011 8:19 AM

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