B.S.: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
M.S.: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Ph.D.: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Postdoctoral fellowship: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Cynthia Nau Cornelissen is the director of the Center for Translational Immunology. Cornelissen obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign working with Dr. Jordan Konisky. She then joined the laboratory of Dr. P. Frederick Sparling as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She stayed at UNC-CH as a research associate and a research assistant professor. Subsequently, she joined the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University where she attained the rank of full professor in 2007. In 2019, she joined the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University as the director for the Center for Translational Immunology. Her major research interests are in bacterial pathogenesis and vaccine development against the sexually-transmitted pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Notable achievements include identification of key virulence factors that contribute to the pathogenesis of N. gonorrhoeae. Her laboratory has been continuously funded since 1996. She has served on the Committee for Graduate and Postdoctoral Education for the American Society for Microbiology for 15 years, six of which she served as the committee chair. She has been on the editorial board for Infection and Immunity since 1997 and was a chartered member of the NIH study section Bacterial Pathogenesis. She has been awarded a number of teaching awards for teaching both medical and graduate students. She has trained over 17 graduate students in addition to a number of undergraduates and high school students as a faculty member and principal investigator.
My laboratory is interested in characterizing virulence factors that enable the sexually-transmitted pathogen, N. gonorrhoeae, to cause infection. These virulence factors could be targets for vaccine development or for therapeutic intervention. Gonorrhea, caused by N. gonorrhoeae, is a common infection worldwide with serious sequelae, particularly among women, including infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease and ectopic pregnancy. There is currently no vaccine to prevent gonorrhea and we are quickly running out of antibiotics with which to treat the infection, due to rapidly evolving resistances. Our laboratory focuses primarily on systems that enable the gonococcus to import necessary metals such as iron and zinc. Because these nutrients are absolutely required for growth and replication, if we can identify drugs or develop an immune response to block these processes, we could potentially more effectively treat or even prevent infection. We have thoroughly characterized the gonococcal transporter that enables the pathogen to employ human transferrin as an iron source. By hijacking this human protein as a metal source, the pathogen successfully circumvents a process deployed by the host known as nutritional immunity. Further, the proteins that make up the transferrin receptor system are well conserved among gonococcal strains and therefore are well suited as vaccine antigens or therapeutic targets. We have demonstrated additionally that expression of this system is necessary to initiate the signs and symptoms of urethritis in an experimental human infection model of gonorrhea. Recently, we have identified receptors that also enable the gonococcus to utilize human proteins, whose purpose is to sequester zinc ions in the host. This is another form of nutritional immunity that the gonococcus has successfully been able to deploy defenses against by producing dedicated transport systems. These proteins are also good candidates for therapeutic or immunologic intervention.
Development of a gonococcal vaccine has been a challenge due to the dramatic antigenic variation deployed by N. gonorrhoeae. By focusing on conserved outer membrane metal transporters, we have overcome these difficulties. The impact of a gonococcal vaccine would be felt worldwide as this pathogen is estimated to cause up to 78 million infections every year. These infections can lead to serious long-term consequences including infertility and blindness. Our research projects are highly collaborative, with colleagues, co-authors and co-investigators located throughout the world.
I have also been very active in training the next generation of scientists. I have served on the Committee for Graduate and Postdoctoral Education for the American Society for Microbiology since 2004. I served as the chair of this committee from 2012 until 2018. While serving on this committee, we took an active, ongoing role in training students and postdocs in various aspects of professional development, including grant writing, manuscript writing, presentation delivery and career awareness.