A team of Oxford scientists has made a significant step forward in the search for a vaccine against Group B meningococcal disease, the biggest cause of severe life-threatening meningitis in the UK.
For a long time, doctors and scientists have suspected that Neisseria lactamica, a harmless germ carried mostly by children under the age of five years, is the key to the development of natural immunity to meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning). If this is true, this harmless bacterium may provide a route to the development of new vaccines against its dangerous relative.
In a two-year project, funded by the Meningitis Research Foundation thanks to a donation from the Oddfellows Friendly Society, the team of scientists from the Department of Zoology and the Oxford Vaccine Group in the Department of Paediatrics set about the task of understanding more fully how children become exposed to lactamica.
The study examined children in their first two years of life and researchers found that once they were colonised with a particular type of the harmless germ, they carried that type harmlessly in their noses for a prolonged period of time, rather than losing one type quickly and picking up other types. It was also found that babies typically caught lactamica from their brothers and sisters or other children rather than their parents.
Martin Maiden, Professor of Molecular Epidemiology and Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology led the study. He said: ‘This research has pioneered the use of cutting-edge genetic techniques to develop a system to categorise lactamica. We found a genetic variation amongst different lactamica, similar to the variation found amongst meningococci. These findings have very encouraging implications for the development of new meningococcal vaccines.’
Denise Vaughan, Chief Executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation said: ‘Our vision is a world free from meningitis and septicaemia. We are delighted to have funded this research which may well help in providing answers in the search for a vaccine against Group B meningococcal disease, taking us a step closer to our vision.’
Picture: Research assistant Julia Bennett working on the lactimica study.