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News

Gene mutations, possible link to meningitis

Society For General Microbiology : 19 September, 2002  (Company News)
Gene mutations may account for a third of all meningococcal meningitis in the UK scientists heard at the Society for General Microbiology autumn meeting at Loughborough University.
'We have used family studies to calculate that differences in a person's genetics account for at least one third of the risk of getting meningitis. The rest may depend on how aggressive the bacteria are, or whether a person already has effective antibodies,' says Dr Hibberd of Imperial College School of Medicine, London.

'While looking for the genetic component, we found a mutation in a gene for Factor H in up to 60% of patients with meningococcal illness, compared to 43% in the rest of the population. We think that this mutation is an important part of the genetic contribution to meningococcal disease,' says Dr Martin Hibberd.

Scientists have long thought that variation in immunity was important in susceptibility to meningitis. The bacterium that causes meningococcal meningitis can be found living harmlessly in the nose and throat of most people for at least some part of their lives. But the reason why it suddenly causes illness in only a small proportion of people, about 2000 each year in the UK - has been unclear until now.

Dr Hibberd explains, 'Factor H is a protein that regulates part of the innate immune system, which is essential for killing and removing microbes from the body. It is especially crucial in young babies who have not developed antibody-based immunity. It seems that this particular mutation in fH, the so-called C/C genotype, suppresses the innate immune system making people with the C/C genotype more likely to be affected by meningitis.'

'Long-term, this research could lead to improved treatments, perhaps by copying nature and applying what we know about successful immune responses,' says Dr Hibberd.
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