It can take just hours after the symptoms appear for someone to die from bacterial meningitis. Now, after years of research, experts at The University of Nottingham have finally discovered how the deadly meningococcal bacteria is able to break through the body's natural defence mechanism and attack the brain.
The discovery could lead to better treatment and vaccines for meningitis and could save the lives of hundreds of children.
Bacterial meningitis in childhood is almost exclusively caused by the respiratory tract pathogens Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, and Haemophilus influenzae. The mechanism used by these lethal germs to break through the blood brain barrier (BBB) has, until now, been unknown.
The team led by Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, Professor of Clinical Microbiology and Head of the Molecular Bacteriology and Immunology Group at the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, recently discovered that all three pathogens target the same receptor on human cerebrovascular endothelial cells — the specialised filtering system that protects our brain from disease — enabling the organisms to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Their findings, published today in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, suggest that disruption or modulation of this interaction of bacterial adhesins with the receptor might offer unexpectedly broad protection against bacterial meningitis and may provide a therapeutic target for the prevention and treatment of disease.
Professor Ala’Aldeen, who has been studying meningitis and its causes for over 20 years, said: “This is a significant breakthrough which will help us design novel strategies for the prevention and treatment of bacterial meningitis. Identification of the human receptor and bacterial ligands is like identifying a mysterious key and its lock, which will open new doors and pave the way for new discoveries.”
The research, carried out in collaboration with the Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis Tennessee, also involved students from the University who have been regular and willing volunteers in the research programme.
Professor Ala’Aldeen said: “The ultimate aim is to save lives by protecting the healthy and curing the sick. We are one step closer to new breakthroughs that would prevent disease or its complications. There still is a long way to go before we have the ultimate vaccine and the ultimate treatment of bacterial meningitis.”
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Notes to editors:
The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.
More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.
The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's “only truly global university”, it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.
Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.