Gene breakthrough leads to hope of meningitis vaccine soon

August 9th, 2010 - 5:21 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Aug 9 (IANS) Genetic factors which make people more vulnerable to meningitis have been identified - raising hopes of developing a vaccine for the deadliest form of the disease.
For the first time, experts have pinpointed a family of genes involved in the body’s immune response which renders people more or less susceptible to the infection.

It is hoped that the breakthrough could help scientists create a vaccine for the Group B strain, which each year claims thousands of live around the world, reports the Telegraph.

The first symptoms of bacterial or viral meningitis can come on quickly or surface several days after a child has had a cold and runny nose, diarrhoea and vomiting, or other signs of an infection.

Common symptoms include fever, lethargy (decreased consciousness), irritability, headache, photophobia (eye sensitivity to light), stiff neck, skin rashes, and seizures.

Scientists looked at the genetic make-up of 1,500 people from Britain, Holland, Austria and Spain, who had developed meningococcal meningitis.

Their DNA was compared with that of more than 5,000 individuals who had never suffered a bacterial meningitis infection, says the journal Nature Genetics.

The researchers, comprising teams in London and Singapore, focused on half a million genetic areas which commonly vary between individuals, in search of differences between the two groups and the findings showed that susceptible people had alterations in their DNA around genes for so-called Factor H proteins.

These regulate a bacteria-fighting part of the immune system and prevent it damaging the body’s own cells.

Meningococcal bacteria are able to “hijack” Factor H and use it to enter the body without being attacked.

Professor Michael Levin, from the Department of Paediatrics at Imperial College London, who led the research, said: “Although most of us have carried the meningitis bacteria at some point, only around one in 40,000 people develop meningococcal meningitis.

Dr Victoria Wright, from Imperial College, London said: “Meningococcal disease is a terrible illness as it strikes healthy children and adults suddenly, and can kill in a few hours.

“Improving our understanding of why some people get the disease and not others will help to identify those at risk and develop better vaccines.”

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