EU project on killer bacteria led by Lund researchers

Serious streptococcus infections is the theme of a major EU project to be coordinated and led by researchers from Lund University. Associate Professor Claes Schalen and researcher Aftab Jasir, both at the Department of Medical Microbiology, Dermatology, and Infections, Section for Bacteriology, are the coordinator and project leader, respectively. Group A streptococci (GAS) are also called killer bacteria since serious GAS infections can develop with dramatic rapidity.

“Since the late 1980s we have seen serious GAS infections increase all over Europe. In Sweden we now have 300-500 cases per year. We are not certain about the cause of these infections. One possible explanation is that the population used to have a certain degree of immunity against these bacteria,” says Claes Schalen.

GAS infections often appear as tonsillitis or impetigo. Before the advent of antibiotics scarlet fever and rheumatic fever were feared diseases following these infections. But these complications are now rare in the western world since GAS is treatable with penicillin and infections with these bacteria can therefore be curbed.

GAS can also enter the body in other ways, such as via sores. If the bacteria are spread in the blood the course of disease can be rapid. This is also the case if they make their way into muscle tissue, where they truly earn their name as carnivorous bacteria. Many individuals can be carriers of GAS without themselves being sick—others can contract life-threatening infections from a tiny sore.

Lund is internationally renowned for its GAS research, and with new methods to characterize the bacteria and to analyze how they function, Claes Schalen and Aftab Jasir took the initiative for an EU study.

“It’s a three-year project, and we have received a total of SEK 11 million from the Fifth Framework Program. Eleven laboratories are from different European countries participating in the study. These institutions comprise university departments, governmental institutes for infectious diseases, and one private lab,” says Aftab Jasir.

“The EU study will allow us to monitor the scope of serious GAS diseases, how these infections are spread, and how they arise. We have developed new typological methods based on DNA analysis, and our objective is to harmonize the rules for establishing types in order to obtain reliable data. Hopefully, the results will also provide knowledge of use in the development of vaccines against GAS. There are many teams in the world working on vaccine projects. Preparations are in full swing and by year’s end all participants will begin to “collect” GAS. That’s also right in the season for serious infections.”

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