View all news

Do bacteria produce toxins to cause disease?

Dr Ruth Massey

Dr Ruth Massey

S. aureus

Cluster of S. aureus cells on the surface of a human cell

16 May 2018

The School is delighted to announce Dr Ruth Massey has been awarded a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) grant to research if bacteria produce toxins to cause disease.

Dr Ruth Massey, Reader in the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine (CMM), will be researching 'Phenol soluble modulins and their role in the establishment and maintenance of a commensal status for Staphylococcus aureus', with a new researcher who has joined the team, Dr Seana Duggan, and will also be collaborating with Dr Rachel McLouglin, who based at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

There are as many bacterial cells living in and on us (i.e. our microbiome) as there are cells that make up our body, and in the vast majority of interactions between us and our microbiome, they provide health benefits. However, situations can arise where some of these bacteria can cause serious and life-threatening infections, none more so than with the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus which is both a member of our respiratory tract microbiome, but also a major human pathogen. With the growing AMR crisis, we believe that alongside efforts to identify new antibiotics to treat infections, that a greater understanding how bacteria such as S. aureus maintain a healthy relationship with us is of equal importance. If we can understand this, we may be able to develop alternative therapeutic approaches to antibiotics that prevent the bacteria from causing infections.

To address this, we have been studying how S. aureus interacts with human cells and although the secretion of toxins by this bacterium is a critical part of their infectious process, our findings suggest that toxins are considerably more important to the ability of S. aureus to establish and maintain a healthy carriage status. We have shown that toxin production allows S. aureus to survive for prolonged periods inside phagocytes (immune cells that engulf and usually destroy bacteria). Toxin production also gives S. aureus a competitive advantage against other bacterial members of our micro-flora. Bringing these findings together is key to understanding the ability of these bacteria to exist in a healthy relationship within us, which will have widespread implications to our understanding of the contribution our microbiome makes to our health and may lead to the development of novel infection prevention approaches. 

The grant from the BBSRC will be for 3 years with funding of about £490K.  Dr Massey said, "What is really exciting about this project is that we are turning what we know about bacteria and disease on its head, and looking at how toxins actually help the bacteria keep us healthy."

Edit this page