Meet the Vice Chair for Research: Toni Darville, MD

Toni Darville, MD, joined the UNC Department of Pediatrics in November 2013 as the Vice Chair for Research and the chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

Spend a just a few minutes with Toni Darville, MD, and it’s easy to see that she is a Southern lady. Her warmth and slight drawl is indicative of many years spent in the South and a medical career that started in Arkansas before transitioning north to Pittsburgh and then veering south again to North Carolina, her new home.

“I was really happy in Pittsburgh, and our research efforts were going really well,” says Dr. Darville of her previous post. “But being from the South, when Wesley Burks [chief physician of N.C. Children's Hospital] called and said, ‘You’ve got to be getting tired of the cold,’ coming to UNC was an attractive proposition.”

Dr. Darville joined the UNC Department of Pediatrics faculty in November of 2013, leaving Pittsburgh and taking on the vice chair for research position. She also become the chief for a newly formed Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, now separate from the Division of Allergy, Immunology and Rheumatology.

“The research climate in Chapel Hill is so outstanding that it really wasn’t that difficult for me to make the decision to come,” says Dr. Darville.

Dr. Darville’s main priority in her vice chair role is building a center for pediatric research, a place where researchers from across N.C. Children’s Hospital can set up labs and conduct leading-edge research.

“We already have a fabulous research environment at UNC,” says Dr. Darville. “There’s a lot of outstanding clinical research and basic research, but the investigators are scattered around campus. There’s really no center where pediatric researchers can congregate at the coffee pot and develop collaborations.”

Part of the strategy behind creating a research institute is to recruit research-experienced division chiefs as well as faculty researchers who are young in their career.

"Young faculty may be conducting exciting research, but their research may not be exactly ready for NIH funding,” explains Dr. Darville. “If we have endowed funds or other available funds to help them, they can come and do their research here, producing a snowball effect, so that when they get NIH funding, it will push things even further.”

“I think UNC is ripe for this undertaking,” she adds. “We have a more-than-adequate patient volume and variety of problems and issues to study, and I think we’re in a perfect position to gather young investigators doing basic research that can then be translated to the bedside.”

Dr. Darville herself has a strong background in research, spending more than two decades of her career studying chlamydia.

“As a pediatrician, people always ask me, ‘Why do you do you study chlamydia? It’s not really a pediatric disease.’ But it really is, because it affects young teenagers,” she explains. “At our adolescent clinic in Arkansas, 25 percent of girls treated at the clinic were infected with chlamydia. And the rates around the nation are around 10 percent.”

Dr. Darville was initially interested in the pathogenesis of the disease—how it developed. According to Dr. Darville, most women don’t even know they ever contracted chlamydia, many of them finding out only after it’s made them infertile. In addition to causing infertility, chlamydia is the leading cause of infection-causing blindness in the world.

Her initial work studying chlamydia at the University of Arkansas involved animal models. At the University of Pittsburgh, she transitioned to studying human samples and became serious about developing a vaccine, which could improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

“I’m working with a vaccine company, collaborating with scientists there to develop a vaccine to prevent chlamidya infection,” she says. “We just submitted some data together for a provisional patent application.”

Beyond creation of a pediatric research institute and her own personal research endeavors, Dr. Darville says she looks forward to expanding the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Her main priorities as division chief are recruiting new physicians and establishing a fellowship program, while also supporting the division’s current outstanding faculty. Mentorship is also a big priority for Dr. Darville.

“I enjoy mentoring young people,” she says. “I’ve been very involved over the years in training MD fellows, post-doctoral fellows, MD-PhD students and PhD students. As I have time here, I’m hoping to become more involved with that.”

Dr. Darville completed her medical training at the University of Arkansas, including a fellowship in infectious diseases at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. She has served as chief of the divisions of pediatric infectious diseases at both the University of Arkansas and the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Darville and her husband have fraternal twin daughters who live in Chicago. After settling in to their first few months as North Carolinians, she and her husband are pleased with their choice to return to the South.

“Chapel Hill is just so beautiful,” she says. “About two years ago, before I took the job here, I conducted a workshop on pelvic inflammatory disease at the Carolina Inn [in Chapel Hill]. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, this place is so pretty.’ But I never really dreamed at that time that I’d be coming back here to stay.”

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