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."