Touching Lives - October 2012
Bacterial meningitis is a medical emergency that can kill a vulnerable newborn baby in less than four hours. One in 10 babies who contract the disease will die, and around half of survivors develop some sort of disability by the age of five, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy and learning disabilities.
Babies with bacterial meningitis get ill very quickly. They might refuse feeds and vomit, struggle to breathe, develop a fever, suffer convulsions or go into a coma. The disease is incredibly distressing for the parents as well as the baby, so Action is funding research into how this terrible illness could be prevented. Professor Peter Taylor is based at the School of Pharmacy at University College London where he is using his knowledge and experience of bacteria and infections to help newborn babies. He says: “With a devastating disease such as bacterial meningitis, it’s not enough to try and cure it, we need to prevent the disease from taking hold in the first place.”
Around 1,000 babies each year in the UK develop bacterial meningitis. Survival rates have increased slightly, but the frequency and severity of the illness remains about the same. “A thousand cases a year may not seem very much,” says Professor Taylor, “but that’s precisely why bacterial meningitis has not had the medical attention it deserves and has fallen through the cracks.”
Around 16 per cent of cases of bacterial meningitis affecting babies are caused by the E.coli bacterium, which colonises a baby’s gut and enters the bloodstream.
Most people have E.coli in their gut without getting ill, thanks to a protective layer of mucus that stops the bacteria from entering the blood. But in newborn babies the E.coli bacteria block the production of a protein called Tff2 which is used to make the protective mucus layer, so babies are then vulnerable to disease.
Action funding is enabling Professor Taylor to look at whether this protein could be developed as a treatment. He believes this would speed up the formation of the protective mucus layer in a baby’s gut and stop the E.coli bacteria from entering a baby’s blood. It is still early days in the project, but the results so far look positive. If this project is successful, clinical trials could follow.