New protein group could be breakthrough for pneumonia, meningitis vaccines

Research at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Leicester has discovered activity in a newly discovered protein group that may serve as a breakthrough in the battle against pneumonia, septicaemia and meningitis.

This collaborative research, jointly led by Dr. Ed Lavelle from Trinity College Dublin and Dr. Aras Kadioglu from the University of Leicester with Dr. Edel McNeela of TCD as the lead author, may dramatically shift understanding of how the body’s immune system responds to Streptococcus pneumonia infection. The hope is that these discoveries may lead to more effective vaccines.

The teams claim that they have shown that when the bacterial toxin pneumolysin reacts with an immune system, the response activates the NLRP3 inflammasome group of proteins. Once the activation has occurred, the inflammasome can provide protection against future infection by this pathogen.

This mechanism acts independently of previously described immune response proteins, which is contrary to dogma in the field. The paper is the first to show that the NLRP3 inflammasome is a key to the immune response and that the pneumolysin bacteria toxin drives the process. This interaction may be the driving force behind the development of more effectively targeted vaccines.

“This is a very exciting finding and supports the development of inflammasome activating vaccines to prevent pneumococcal diseases including pneumonia and septicaemia,” Lavelle said. “If a protein based vaccine could be produced that can protect against all strains of the pneumococcus, this would be of tremendous value and our discovery that NLRP3 is needed for protection will point us in the right direction in terms of how to develop such vaccines.”

The research included collaborators from the U.S. and Switzerland over a four year period and was supported by the Meningitis Research Foundation, Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the Medical Research Council.