The FINANCIAL — Scientists at the University of Liverpool have discovered a new and important function of a toxin produced by disease-causing bacteria that could have significant implications for future vaccine design.
Streptococcus pneumoniae (the pneumococcus) is a major cause of life-threatening invasive diseases such as pneumonia, septicaemia and meningitis, and is responsible for more than one million deaths every year. Key to its disease-causing success is the action of a potent toxin called pneumolysin, which works by creating ‘holes’ in the membranes of human cells, and either killing them directly or causing significant tissue damage.
Until now, scientists believed that the effects of pneumolysin resulted purely from the binding of the toxin to cholesterol in host cell membranes. A new study published in Nature Microbiology, however, shows that pneumolysin can also bind directly to a host cell receptor on specialised immune cells to suppress the immune response.
The study was a collaboration between scientists from the Bacterial Pathogenesis and Immunity Group at the University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health and the Normark group at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
Using specialised in vitro experiments in human cells and in vivo studies in mice, the team has shown that pneumolysin can bind directly to a host cell receptor called Mannose Receptor C type-1 (MRC-1) on immune cells, including macrophages and dendritic cells, causing them to reduce their production of molecules that promote inflammation and protective immunity. The bacteria can then survive more easily in the airways, as inflammation and immune cell activity is suppressed.