Meningitis - killer gene discovered

The Times (London)

Scientists have discovered the genes that transform harmless meningitis bacteria into potential killers.

The breakthrough, by researchers at Oxford, may help the development of a vaccine against the meningitis B strain of the disease, responsible for 60 percent of meningitis infections in Britain.

Although a successful vaccination program has been introduced to combat meningitis C, no vaccine exists for the B strain.

Meningitis kills more children under the age of five than any other infectious disease in Britain. It kills 10 percent of all those who contract it. Others who survive the infection may be left with severe disabilities such as deafness, brain damage or the loss of a limb.

Yet many people carry the bacteria that cause meningitis with no ill effects. Meningococcus B lives harmlessly in the back of the noses and throats of one in ten people. Sometimes, however, it changes into a dangerous microbe that can invade the bloodstream, overcome the immune system and kill a previously healthy person within hours.

The scientists from Oxford University's departments of pediatrics and biochemistry built on the sequencing of the genomes - the genetic blueprints of meningitis B and C that were completed earlier this year. Breaking down the mass of information, they discovered "virulence genes" responsible for turning the meningitis bug into a killer. The research was published in Nature Medicine Nov. 15.