University of Oklahoma research scientists make important steps toward strep vaccine

Imagine a shot that could protect you from the bug that causes health problems ranging from sore throats to a deadly form of pneumonia.

It may not be long before such protection is available.

Research scientists at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine took a major step forward recently with a vital discovery.

"Strep throat is like a hole in your throat. It just really feels bad," said 11-year-old David Steichen.

A fifth grader, Steichen is no stranger to strep throat.

Marina Bachman, 10, had it too.

"Just hurt really bad," said Bachman. "Had to sit on the couch all day."

Streptococcus bacteria are so contagious the germs can spread like wildfire through the close quarters of a classroom.   

"We get it as well," said Dru Jenkinson, Marquette Catholic School science teacher.

Strep can spread despite the best hand-washing and cleanup efforts.

Even worse, the bacteria best known for sore throats can turn deadly.  Strep can invade the blood stream and body. 

According to the National Institutes of Health , streptococcus pneumoniae is known to cause sepsis, a systemic infection of the bloodstream. It can also cause an infection of the fluid in the brain and spinal cord called meningitis. In addition, the strep bacterium can cause toxic shock syndrome, which can bring on widespread organ failure.

Streptococcal pneumonia kills 800,000 children around the world each year.

"The current vaccines are either not available, they don't work for that particular patient population  or they can't afford them," said Gina McMillen, D.V.M, Ph.D., with the OU Office of Technology Development .

That is why the work Dr. Rodney Tweten , a George Lynn Cross Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, and his research team are doing in the labs at the OU College of Medicine in Oklahoma City is so important.

"Strep pneumonia, strep sore throat, listeriosis… They all produce this kind of toxin," said Tweten.

OU researchers identified a key toxin that may be the key to the spread of streptococcus pneumoniae or "pneumococcus."  Shut down the toxin's ability to drill into human cells and these scientists believe they can diffuse the toxin and encourage the body to mount an effective immune system response against step bacteria.

OU scientists took the first steps toward identifying the biological troublemaker 20 years ago. Now, two decades of research take another leap forward.

"These are human lung cells that we grow in the lab," said one post-doctoral student currently working on the next phase of research.

OU licensed its findings to the PATH Foundation, an international non-profit organization dedicated to developing an effective vaccine.

"They're making it right now. They're making grand quantities of this, so it's easy to make," said Tweten.

While viewing a colorful 3D display of the streptococcal pneumonia, Tweten spoke of his team's real purpose.

"We actually understand true beauty when we look at these molecules," he said.  "What interests us is the science and discovering things and if application comes out of that, that's great but still our primary interest and excitement comes from discovery."

While the thrill of discovery may drive their work, Tweten and his team modestly take pride in knowing their research may help save lives.

Their hope is kids like the ones in Dru Jenkinson's summer science class in Tulsa and others around the world will one day be able to roll up their sleeves for a strep vaccine.

While getting an injection is never popular, seventh grader Cristian Bachman, 12, agreed it would be good to be protected from strep.  

"If I just got it over with it would be worth it if I never had it again," said Bachman.

As OU researchers continue their research efforts in Oklahoma City, collaborators in Australia are focusing on the project too.   

If the vaccine passes the animal testing phase, clinical trials on humans may begin as early as next year.

What day does your child return to school? What are the days they're not in class? What supplies do they need? Check out our Back to School guide . You'll find area school districts' 2012-2013 calendars and school supplies lists.

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