Protecting against lung and airway infections

Infections like meningitis pose a serious threat to all of us, whilst common infections like colds or 'flu can cause life threatening symptoms in those with respiratory conditions. We’re working to prevent lung and airway infections, improve detection and find new ways to ensure successful antibiotic treatment.

Key investigator: Prof Robert Read

Key projects

Tackling chronic lung infection in cystic fibrosis

  • Chronic infection and persistence of bacterial biofilms are the main factors associated with long-term morbidity and death in cystic fibrosis (CF), the most common lethal hereditary disease in Caucasian populations. We’re tackling this by researching approaches to prevent infection and disintegrate bacterial biofilms.
  • We have established robust analyses of biofilm degradation and shown that low doses of nitrogen oxide (NO) degrade bacterial biofilm coatings, improving antibiotic access to chronic infections in CF patients.  
  • This discovery has secured us a €3.9M Seeding Drug Discovery Award from the Wellcome Trust to support French bitech firm Antabio’s efforts in developing a novel bacterial biofilm disruptor treatment for CF patients.
  • We are also testing a NO donor antibiotic compound called DEACP on various bacterial biofilms from ear, nose and throat infections in children, using adenoids removed during routine surgery.    
  • As lung and airway infections in cystic fibrosis patients often start in the mouth and throat, we reviewed how often children with cystic fibrosis brush their teeth and use mouthwash over a ten year period. We found those with better oral hygiene tended to have better lung health, survive for longer and be less likely to need a lung transplant. Based on these results, we are creating a treatment programme to improve oral hygiene in children with cystic fibrosis.

Preventing meningitis and fighting tuberculosis

  • Tuberculosis (TB) and meningitis can both be caused by the bacterium mycobacterium tuberculosis, with the infection starting in the lungs and progressing to the protective meninges surrounding the brain.
  • Southampton led a multicentre trial of two meningitis vaccines, the results of which have been published in the Lancet, achieving some of the highest recruitment. This study underpinned a Department of Health cost effectiveness assessment and the Joint Committee for Vaccines and Immunisation recommendation that the vaccine be included in the childhood vaccine schedule.
  • We have also identified key mediators involved in TB infection called matrix metalloproteinases, and are using byproducts of their activity to assess disease progression. Further work is developing drugs to inhibit them, reducing long-term complications and improving survival.

Rapid, point of care diagnoses of viral infection

  • Point-of-care tests could allow respiratory illnesses to be diagnosed while seeing the patient, rather than sending samples to a laboratory and waiting for the results. This allows treatment, if required, to commence at an earlier stage, improving patient outcomes.
  • We are assessing the merits of such tests for viral infections, and are running a three year study with University of Southampton, University of Edinburgh, University College London, University of Glasgow, Epigem Ltd, and Enfer Ltd to develop a point-of-care test to diagnose TB.

Optimising vaccines

  • Vaccination is essential for preventing viral infections in those most vulnerable, but it is important to ensure they are safe and minimise any possible side effects.
  • We are conducting a study, known as the ‘sniffle study’, to determine whether children with egg allergy can safely receive the flu vaccine, which contains small amounts of egg protein. In addition, we are conducting an observational study of patients in hospital with flu.

Better care for respiratory syncytial virus patients

  • We are running a study to test a new treatment for adults hospitalised with a respiratory illness triggered by respiratory syncytial virus.