Meningitis is a life threatening disease during which inflammation causes the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord to swell. In addition, meningitis-causing bacterial pathogens can also cause septicaemia or blood poisoning. In either case, even with medical intervention severe morbidity and mortality are not entirely avoidable. In the case of Neisseria meningitidis, such adverse effects are caused by the release of endotoxin once the bacterium is able to access the blood stream (see figure on right).
The blebbing phenomenon in meningococci which helps produce excess surface antigens to divert human immune response and also endotoxin which results in inflammation and cellular damage.
The electron micrograph image on the right shows the surface expression of Opc in N. Meningitidis by immunogold labelling using an anti-Opc monoconal antibody. Opc is located on the bacterial surface and also on surplus membrane extruded from bacterial surfaces which eventually is shed as blebs or vesicles (Virji et al. 1993 Molecular Microbiology 10: 499-510)
A crucial step in meningococcal pathogenesis is the attachment of meningococci to the epithelium of the human nasopharynx. To achieve this, meningococci produce a range of surface structures capable of binding to a number of human cellular receptors. Therefore, a major focus of research at Bristol is to understand the molecular interaction of meningococci with human cells and tissues (Professor Mumtaz Virji, Dr Darryl Hill).
Meningitis research at Bristol was established in 1998 and through multi-million pound investment resulted in the establishment of flagship Spencer Dayman Meningitis laboratories which were officially opened by Professor Keith Cartwright (MA BM FCRpath) in April 2002. These laboratories house state of the art facilities dedicated to the study of the two most common causative agents of bacterial meningitis namely Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae bringing together microbiologists, immunologists and clinicians to address a number of important questions relating to this disease.