Microbiology intrigued Ann Jerse as a student, living and learning in Terre Haute, her hometown.
Recalling an endocrinology class at Indiana State University, Jerse said, “It was just fascinating.”
That interest turned into a career as a research scientist, earning Jerse several awards and a call this spring to share her expertise at the headquarters of the World Health Organization — the high-profile international public health agency of the United Nations. Jerse traveled in April to Geneva, Switzerland, along with fellow experts in a form of epidemiology with limited public awareness but global implications. The scientists gathered with representatives of medical industries and agencies to discuss the status of vaccine development for STIs, sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes simplex virus, trichomonas and syphilis.
It’s an “ugly topic” of conversation, Jerse said, but for a scientific researcher, such microbes are “really fascinating to study.”
In her role as a professor of microbiology and immunology at the F. Edward Herbert School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences — the U.S. military’s medical school in Bethesda, Md. — Jerse specializes in the study of gonorrhea. That age-old disease ranks as the second-most commonly reported notifiable infection in America, and in the ranks of the U.S. armed services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 322,000 reported cases in 2011, but because the infection frequently shows no symptoms, the CDC estimates the likely number of cases to be 700,000.
Seventy percent of those involve 18- to 24-year-olds, with the numbers of men and women nearly even. “It’s a pretty equal-opportunity bug,” Jerse said. “I think it’s young girls you worry about most, and babies.” Young women, particularly, face long-term consequences to their reproductive health from undetected and untreated gonorrhea, Jerse explained, as well as babies born to them. Those women may experience chronic pelvic pain, infertility, and dangerous ectopic pregnancies.
The problem has worsened as the bacteria that causes gonorrhea has mutated into a potentially untreatable “superbug” by developing a resistance to the last remaining class of antibiotics effective against it.
A dual therapy of ceftriaxone and two other antibiotics is now used effectively. But, Jerse pointed out, “It’s just a matter of time before [the gonococcus bacteria] mutates again.” Last month, the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, William Smith, told NBC News that untreatable gonorrhea could reach the U.S. in “a year or two.”
The work by Jerse and the young scientists she trains at the Uniformed Services University aims to combat the persistently mutating bug, test new antibiotics and develop vaccines. The USU lab developed a pioneering mouse gonorrhea model to study the infection’s immune response. The project required extensive research, given that gonorrhea only affects humans. They found a method of inserting human genes into the mice. “It was a tough one, and people didn’t think it would work,” Jerse said.
Jerse, 54, works with a team of student scientists, just as she was at Indiana State University, earning her bachelor’s degree in medical technology in 1979, three years after graduating from Terre Haute South Vigo High School. Her schooling, which began at Maryland and Fuqua elementaries and Sarah Scott Junior High School in Terre Haute (where her parents still reside), continued after ISU as a medical technologist at Indianapolis Methodist Hospital, and Duke University Medical Center. She earned a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Jerse lives with her 12-year-old daughter in Rockville, Md., where they enjoy gardening and travel.
At the university laboratory, the researchers’ ultimate goal is a vaccine for a disease that affects thousands of U.S. service men and women yearly. The spread of the disease and its economic impact are vast. Among the civilian population in Indiana, 6,569 cases of gonorrhea were recorded by the state Department of Health last year. In terms of expense, the CDC “conservatively estimates” the lifetime cost of treating the eight most common STIs contracted in just one year at $15.6 billion. The CDC reminder, echoed and emphasized by Jerse, states that the best prevention against gonorrhea is a monogamous relationship between two uninfected partners, and that safe sex practices can prevent infection.
Public education and awareness help, too. “If you talk about it, maybe more people will know about it,” Jerse said. That sharing of information — on a expert level — was the basis of the World Health Organization consortium she attended at Geneva.
Now back at work in the USU lab in Maryland, the research goes on for Jerse and the young scientists in training. “Everybody’s a student. I’m a student,” she said. “We just learn every day, and that’s good.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.