Alison Criss, PhD, ICAAC Young Investigator Award.

UVA Microbiologist Alison Criss, PhD, Honored With Prestigious 2011 Young Investigator Award. Award Recognizes Her Ongoing Research into Finding New Ways to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., September 21, 2011 – University of Virginia Health System Microbiologist Alison Criss, PhD, is one of only five researchers in the nation to receive the competitive 2011 ICAAC Young Investigator Award from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). The award was presented on September 19, 2011, at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC), held in Chicago, Ill.

“It’s an extraordinary honor to receive this award, and I am very thankful to the American Society for Microbiology and my nominators, who are exceptional mentors and scientists,” says Criss, who has been assistant professor of microbiology in the UVA School of Medicine since 2008. “It is gratifying to be recognized as an early career scientist for my contributions to bacterial pathogenesis.”

Criss was nominated by her postdoctoral advisor H. Steven Seifert, fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, who describes Criss as an “extremely intelligent, insightful, diligent, meticulous, hard-working person who tackles problems head-on.” She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University.

Now in her UVA laboratory, Criss is conducting innovative research to discover new, alternative ways to combat the sexually transmitted disease (STD) gonorrhea.

STDs like gonorrhea are becoming increasingly resistant to traditional tried-and-true antibiotic treatments — it’s a crisis that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls a major public health concern. Over the past decade alone, the bacterium that causes gonorrhea has developed an alarming resistance to nearly all antibiotics previously used to cure this highly infectious STD that infects hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

“Gonorrhea is very dangerous if it isn’t immediately treated with antibiotics because it can cause pain and infertility in both men and women,” Criss says. “And women are especially at risk for a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to pregnancy outside the womb and maternal and fetal death.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends treatment for gonorrhea with two antibiotics, a cephalosporin plus azithromycin or doxycycline. Unfortunately resistance to all of these antibiotics has been documented, Criss explains, and it’s known from previous experience with other antibiotics that once resistance develops, it rapidly spreads through the population.

In the past year infectious disease experts have isolated N. gonorrhoeae (the bacteria that causes gonorrhea) that are resistant to all antibiotics. “This makes it almost inevitable that fully antibiotic-resistant ‘superbug’ gonorrhea bacteria will be rampant in the coming years,” says Criss.
Criss and her team of UVA researchers are one of only a handful of groups around the world attempting to understand how N. gonorrhoeae bacteria survive exposure to human immune cells, called neutrophils – white blood cells that combat almost every kind of bacterial or fungal infection.

By identifying the defenses gonorrhea bacteria use against neutrophils, Criss’s lab hopes to create novel therapies to target those defenses. This would allow the immune system to gain the upper hand and clear the infection.

“Because nearly all antibiotics are ineffective in treating gonorrhea, it’s imperative to develop new defenses,” says Criss. “This kind of approach also could be used to treat many other kinds of infections that involve neutrophils.”

Criss’s research has been supported through startup funds from UVA and a career translational award from the National Institutes of Health.

“Discoveries that basic scientists make to combat human disease would not be possible without federal funding,” Criss adds. “We do basic research on the gonorrhea bacteria in hopes that our discoveries will translate into clinical therapies physicians can use to treat infections.”

Original Story in Microbe Magazine:
2011 ICAAC Young Investigator Awards

Alison Criss, PhD, has been honored with a 2011 ICAAC Young Investigator Award.

Criss, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Virginia, is honored for her outstanding research on bacterial pathogenesis.

She was nominated by her postdoctoral advisor, H. Steven Seifert, Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, who describes Criss as an “extremely intelligent, insightful, diligent, meticulous, hard-working person who tackles problems head-on.”

Criss received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University. Now, she studies the interactions of Neisseria gonorrhoeae with polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs) in her laboratory at the University of Virginia.

A supporter of her nomination, Joanna Goldberg, Academy Fellow from the University of Virginia, describes Criss as “truly a rising young star . . . [who] has a very professional and enthusiastic manner that serves to engage and inspire students to perform at the best of their ability.”

Criss’s research focuses on the interplay between bacterial pathogens and host cells at mucosal surfaces. Her graduate work explored the regulation of Salmonella pathogenesis by Rho and ARF family GTPases in polarized epithelial cells. As a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern, Criss investigated the robust mechanisms by which N. gonorrhoeae avoids immune recognition and clearance. N. gonorrhoeae evades humoral immunity by varying its surface components, including antigenic variation of the type IV pilus. She used highthroughput DNA sequencing to show that pilin antigenic variation occurs at the highest frequency of any known pathogenic gene conversion system and produces a diverse repertoire of pilin proteins, as observed during human disease. N. gonorrhoeae also survives exposure to neutrophils in gonorrheal secretions, for reasons that are poorly understood. Using a primary human neutrophil infection model, Criss demonstrated that N. gonorrhoeae suppresses neutrophil production of reactive oxidative species and encodes gene products that confer resistance to neutrophils’ nonoxidative antimicrobial activities. Her laboratory at the University of Virginia is elucidating the molecular and cellular interactions between N. gonorrhoeae and neutrophils, with the goals of identifying the antimicrobial activities neutrophils direct against N. gonorrhoeae and the bacterial defenses that subvert them.

William Shafer, Academy Fellow from Emory University and supporter of Criss’s nomination, says “I have been most favorably impressed by the rigor that Dr. Criss applies to her work, the depth of her thought processes, and her willingness to freely exchange ideas and reagents . . . She has performed the most convincing (and elegant) work to date that shows N. gonorrhoeae can resist intraleukocytic killing by human PMNs.”

More about the Awards:

The 2011 ICAAC Young Investigator Awards recognize and reward five early-career scientists for their research excellence and potential in microbiology and infectious diseases. Since 1983, two awards have been supported by an unrestricted educational grant from Merck, U.S. Human Health Division, while two are sponsored by ASM. In 2007, an additional award from Merck, U.S. Human Health Division was added to recognize excellence in HIV research. Jörn Coers and Alison Criss are the 2011 laureates for the Merck-sponsored awards, and Andrea Endimiani and Benjamin Howden are the 2011 laureates for the ASMsponsored awards. Zachary Klase is the 2011 laureate for the Merck-sponsored award for HIV research.

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