Centre for Perinatal Infection Research

Department Head and Sub Dean, Research

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Perinatal infections acquired through transmission from the mother to the unborn child or newborn infant contribute to a large burden of childhood disease and disability and a large but unmeasured burden of miscarriages, stillbirths and premature births. However, these infections go virtually unrecognised in Australia.

The Centre for Perinatal Infection Research aims to reduce this disease burden by educating health care professionals and the community about diagnosis and treatment, and to develop novel therapies to prevent or treat these infections.

One aspect of its research focus is to determine the reasons why the immune system of newborn infants does not protect them against certain viral infections, like herpes simplex virus (HSV) or cytomegalovirus (CMV). It also performs internationally recognised national surveillance of perinatal infections to quantify the burden of disease they cause in Australian children.

Research achievements

To develop strategies to prevent infection and disease, we need to first understand the body’s immune defences at the site of entry of the virus. To do this, the Centre is performing studies of newborn immune cell responses to HSV. This project will lead to a better understanding of the earliest defences against viruses across all age groups, and should facilitate the development of new therapies.

One recently described type of immune cells, regulatory T cells (T regs), play a vital role in controlling autoimmunity and excessive immune responses to infection. The Centre has recently derived from transgenic mice important information about T reg modulation of antiviral responses which will lead to the development of therapeutics that provide life-long protective immunity without inducing autoimmunity.

The incidence, presentation and management of many perinatal infections in Australia are largely unknown. The Centre is running three collaborative studies of national surveillance through the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit (HSV, Hepatitis C virus and rubella), and collaborating on a fourth study of atypical mycobacterium. These studies are providing unique information on the burden of disease and epidemiology of infections and will be vital in the implementation of any preventative strategies such as vaccines. Collaboration with investigators overseas will compare the incidence of these infections in other countries (InOPSU).

There is currently no national routine antenatal screening programme for infectious diseases in Australia. In particular, there is much debate as to the most appropriate antenatal screening policy for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). It may also be appropriate to screen for other infectious diseases such as toxoplasmosis or past chickenpox exposure. The Centre is currently collaborating with the Macfarlane Burnet Institute to assess the current antenatal testing practice for infectious diseases, particularly HIV and HCV, used by general practitioners and obstetricians throughout Victoria and NSW.