Hugh and Joan Field give their account of our first site visit to Imperial College

Hugh and Joan Field give their account of our first site visit to Imperial College Date: 26 June 2009 - 26 June 2009
Location: Imperial College, London

MRF Members Hugh and Joan Field give their account of our first site visit to Imperial College, London.
Visit to laboratories at Imperial College, London, 26th June 2009 This report reflects the thoughts of Joan and Hugh Field, parents of Jane, who died suddenly at the age of 41 when struck by meningitis.

The need to try and understand how and why this could happen led us to take an interest in the work of the Meningitis Research Foundation and during the eight years since the event we have undertaken a range of fund-raising activities. We have also both involved ourselves in the befriending programme, attending refresher days and undertaking a successful e-mail dialogue. We welcomed the opportunity to participate in the visit to see at first hand the work supported by the Foundation.

The visit was a well-judged mix of “classroom” talks and practical visits to laboratories. Led by Chris Tang, Professor of Infectious Diseases at the Centre for Molecular Microbiology and Infection, the aim was to inform staff of the Meningitis Research Foundation and members with personal experience of meningitis. Throughout the visit we were encouraged to ask questions about what we saw and heard and the warm welcome of all the scientists was much appreciated.

We were met at the Flowers building by Chris Tang who briefly described the department before leading the group to the Senior Common Room for a welcome cup of tea. We returned to his office where we split into two groups for a briefing on the research programme followed by a tour of the faculty. During the briefing Chris Tang gave us a short explanation of the difficulties in producing a vaccine for the Men B strain. We were interested to learn how Men B bacteria are clever at hiding their presence. They produce a protective sugar coating that mimics cells found naturally in the host and so does not produce an immune response. For this reason the normal approach to the production of a vaccine cannot be used.

The tour took in two separate elements of the laboratory, starting with the rooms where the staff worked under sterile conditions. Three of these rooms and their access corridor were at a reduced air pressure to facilitate fume extraction. Chris Tang demonstrated the growth of cultures on plates in the fume cupboards but for safety reasons visitors were not allowed in the sterile rooms. We emerged and continued into the more conventional chemistry laboratories where a number of Chris Tang’s large multinational group explained their individual programmes within the overall meningitis research. These specialists were Ph D students, some funded by the Foundation.

We broke off for an agreeable lunch at a nearby restaurant where the conversation ranged widely round the Foundation’s activities and then returned for two further classroom sessions focussing in detail on two areas of research funded by the Foundation. One, led by Chris Tang, is based on the natural immunity most people develop to meningococcal bacteria (neisseria meningitides). This immunity is thought to have been built up during childhood by a similar, but harmless, bacteria, neisseria lactamica. Not all strains of neisseria lactamica produce an immune response. Work to identify the correct mixture of strains to produce a protective response is an important part of the study. This protection is associated with a high level of antibodies that join the surface proteins of meningococci. It is hoped that these can be identified and used in a vaccine against B neisseria meningitides.

The second research project, led by Dr Vladimir Pelicic’s group, has identified hair-like structures on the surface of most of the Men B bacteria. These structures, called pilins hook themselves onto the cells of the nose and throat. They contain proteins which are present in all clinical strains of meningoccoccal bacteria. Their potential to produce a vaccine to defeat meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia (including Men B) is being tested in this project.

The enthusiasm of Professor Tang and his team was inspiring and we were left with a feeling that any funds that the Foundation was able to put their way would be well spent. We would like to thank them for an interesting and worthwhile visit.