Bacterial meningitis in newborns: harnessing the body’s natural defences | Children's Charity

Bacterial meningitis in newborns: harnessing the body’s natural defences

This research was completed on 28 March 2015

Published on 12 February 2013

Bacterial meningitis remains a life-threatening disease in newborn babies and must be treated as a medical emergency. Although survival rates have been increasing, some babies still die.1 What’s more, the frequency and severity of the illness have not been changing substantially.1,2 Babies who survive remain at risk of developing serious, life-long complications such as cerebral palsy. Professor Peter Taylor, of University College London, is looking for a way to prevent one type of bacterial meningitis, by trying to harness the body’s natural defences.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

Bacterial meningitis can kill in under four hours. Newborn babies are particularly vulnerable, especially if they are premature or had a low birth weight. Those who develop the illness need urgent help.

“Prompt and aggressive treatment of bacterial meningitis with a combination of antibiotics saves many lives, but around one in ten newborns with the illness will die regardless of treatment,” says Professor Taylor.1

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis usually begin suddenly and babies can quickly become very poorly. They might, for example, refuse feeds and vomit, have difficulties breathing, be irritable or lethargic, develop a fever, suffer convulsions or even go into a coma.

“Around half of newborn babies who survive bacterial meningitis develop some form of disability by five years of age,” says Professor Taylor.2 “Some of these disabilities are serious and lifelong. They include cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, epilepsy and hearing loss. Clearly it is hard to overestimate the impact of this illness on babies and their parents.”

Vaccines are available against some forms of bacterial meningitis, but a variety of different bacteria can cause the illness and it’s not possible to vaccinate against them all. Therefore, other ways to prevent the disease are urgently required.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Professor Taylor’s long-term aim is to find a way to stop babies from getting meningitis that’s caused by a bacterium called E. coli K1. Infection with this bacterium is responsible for 16 per cent of cases of meningitis in newborns.1

Most people have E. coli in their gut without suffering any ill effects. Professor Taylor explains: “A layer of mucus lines the gut, protecting us from infection – we think it stops bacteria from invading the gut wall and crossing into the bloodstream. We have evidence that E. coli K1 bacteria prevent the formation of this mucus layer in newborn babies, by blocking production of a naturally occurring protein called Tff2.”

Professor Taylor suspects that Tff2, if developed as a treatment, could protect newborn babies from meningitis by enabling the gut’s mucus layer to develop quickly, so stopping E. coli from passing into the bloodstream. He is investigating this possibility in the laboratory. If he is successful, clinical trials could follow.

What are the researchers’ credentials?

Professor Taylor and his colleague, Professor Gad Frankel, are both highly experienced researchers with considerable and complementary expertise in how bacteria cause disease, particularly meningitis and sepsis. They have an international profile, a proven track record and are based at world-class institutions with excellent facilities.

Project LeaderProfessor Peter W Taylor
Project team
  • Professor Gad Frankel
LocationSchool of Pharmacy, University College London
Other locations
  • Centre for Molecular Microbiology and Infection, Imperial College London
Duration2 years
Grant awarded12 November 2012
Start date1 May 2013
End date28 March 2015
Grant amount£114,845.00
Grant codeGN2075

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