Scientists may soon discover whether people are genetically predisposed to infections caused by a family of bacteria called streptococci, through a new programme of research into the disease. On 6 June 2014 researchers at Oxford University, Public Health England and Imperial College London announced the launch of the programme, known as STREP GENE. The results will help in designing better treatments or a preventative vaccine in future.
The researchers are interested in streptococci that cause a range of infections, from mild problems such as a sore throat, to potentially life-threatening infections including septicaemia (blood poisoning), pneumonia, meningitis and necrotising fasciitis (infection of the tissues below the skin). One type of streptococcus also causes scarlet fever and circulates mainly during the winter months. The potentially fatal infections can occur when the bacteria invade a place in the body where they would not normally be found. Half the patients who develop these life-threatening infections will require intensive care therapy - one in five die from their illness. These infections can sometimes occur in people who are otherwise healthy.
In June 2014, the STREP GENE team, led by Dr Tom Parks, Clinical Research Training Fellow at WTCHG, will begin two new projects. The first will use modern genetics to investigate – for the first time – why some individuals develop severe streptococcal infections, working with survivors of such infections and some of their family members. The second is an anonymous online survey to determine the views of people whose lives have been affected by this illness. The team will use the answers from this survey to help design a larger project recruiting patients and their families close to the time of the illness.
Genetics research compares the genetic material of individuals with a particular disease, such as severe streptococcal disease, with either their family members or healthy volunteers who do not have the disease. There are many reasons why we develop infections, including how effectively our body’s defences – the immune system – can fend off particular bacteria. One reason that immune systems vary in their effectiveness is that everyone’s genetic make-up is different. There are now powerful tools that can read and analyse the entire genetic code.
The team are working with the help of the Lee Spark Necrotising Fasciitis Foundation as well as infection doctors at NHS hospitals.