Cracking the code to meningitis

October 2020

The way we store and analyse digital data has dramatically improved many areas of our lives – everything from solving crimes to putting an array of information at our fingertips. Within our increasingly digital landscape, we have an unprecedented opportunity to use technology to save lives by pro-actively responding to disease events, such as epidemics.

The current COVID pandemic has put a spotlight on the ability to rapidly transform clinical samples into meaningful data that can be used to track the spread or develop vaccines – and genomics has played a huge part in making this possible.

The field of genomics has grown rapidly in recent years, and for most countries, this popularity has resulted in dramatic reductions to cost. It’s now been 20 years since the first draft human genome was published at a cost of $3 billion dollars. Now, it costs just $1000 and it’s thought that in the future it might only cost $100.

What is a genome?

It’s not just humans that have a genome; every living thing, including bacteria and viruses, have one too. Also known as a genetic blueprint, the genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA which holds the instructions for living things to develop, grow and live. DNA itself is made up of chemical building blocks called nucleotides linked together into long strands. Each nucleotide contains one of four bases usually known by their abbreviations A, T, C and G and the order of these determines the biological instructions in a strand of DNA.

Whole genome sequencing is the technology that reveals the exact order – or sequence - of these bases. While seemingly simple, knowing the order of these four letters provides the code which has led to remarkable advances in our understanding of biology, including human disease.

In the case of bacteria, the information from the genome can tell us how aggressive a strain is, or how closely related different samples of bacteria are – this is particularly important when tracking and tracing outbreaks of disease.

In fact, the MRF- Meningococcal Genome Library (MRF-MGL) has shown us that decoding a genome can provide lifesaving information.

Catching a killer: MenW

Meningitis is an elusive killer, that spreads around the world. The MRF-MGL gives us the clues we need to hunt it down, stop it in its tracks, and save lives.

In 2009, cases of Meningococcal Group W meningitis (MenW), began to rise steeply in England and Wales. Scientists thought that this increase might have been caused by the same strain responsible for outbreaks of disease associated with the Hajj, but without genomics they couldn’t be sure.

Through the MRF-MGL, a ground breaking resource that provides the complete genetic blueprint of every sample of meningococcal bacteria known to have caused disease in the UK, scientists were able to examine the bacteria in detail and make valuable comparisons.

Their investigations revealed that the sharp increase in disease in England and Wales was in fact caused by a strain originating from South America that was known to be particularly dangerous, with a death rate of 28% compared to the usual 10%.

Armed with this information, the UK introduced an emergency MenACWY vaccination programme for teenagers – stopping this deadly strain in its tracks and reducing the further spread of disease.

With meningitis bacteria being able to rapidly travel across the globe, gathering information on a global scale is vital to defeating it. As part of the WHO Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030, we are now working with world leading experts to establish a Global Meningitis Genome Partnership which aims to tackle meningitis through establishing a co-ordinated approach to collecting and sharing genomic data for the leading causes of bacterial meningitis.

What's next?

As for the future of genomics, there seems to be no limit to its uses.

Meningitis Research Foundation is currently helping to bring together a group of experts to gather genomic data for meningitis samples from across the world and make it easily accessible. This will help us defeat meningitis by providing vital data for surveillance, prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

In the coming years, it’s likely that we will start to see an increased use of metagenomics – an approach which bypasses the usual need for pure samples or ‘isolates’ of bacteria to be grown before sequencing can commence.  Instead, metagenomics enables the genome to be studied directly from a clinical sample, such as blood. The approach has already shown to be hugely useful in tracking the origins of a deadly meningitis outbreak in Liberia, even though no isolates were available.
Since the charity was founded in 1989, we have awarded 161 research grants. The total value of our investment in vital scientific research is over £19.1 million (€24.7 million).
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About the author

Liz Rodgers
Research Projects Manager

My role involves working with the Scientific Advisory Panel on the Foundation's research programme. It’s really exciting to see how our research programme evolves, from the initial selection of research applications, to working with our communications team to help publicise our research in novel ways.

Tel: 0333 405 6258