Funding meningitis breakthroughs: the Jessica Bethell MenB research grant call

December 2022

Funding meningitis breakthroughs: the Jessica Bethell MenB research grant call

October 1st, 2012 was the worst day of our lives. We left home around 9am, kissing Jessica goodbye as she came in from riding out. She said, I’ve got a bad headache Mum.’ Those were the last words she spoke. She had died by 6pm that evening.”

Sally and James Bethell, parents of Jessica

Medical and scientific research is a catalyst to save lives, delivering the knowledge and evidence that powers disease prevention and treatment. That’s why, since 1989, Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) has awarded over 160 scientific research grants, investing over £19 million in breakthrough science that will help us better understand meningitis, what will defeat it, and what is needed to support those living with the life-changing after-effects of infection.

Research funded by MRF has enabled the development of approaches to assess how well meningococcal group B (MenB) vaccines protect against circulating disease, has supported the analysis of the UK population’s preferences into the prioritisation of childhood vaccination programmes, and has established a world first MRF-Meningococcal Genome Library, which paved the way for a Global Meningitis Genome Library.

This work is supported by the expert knowledge of our international Scientific Advisory Panel, who ensure we only fund scientifically sound research. As well as this expert oversight, we are also a member of the Association of Medical Research Charities, meaning we employ rigorous standards in reviewing and recommending projects for research funding.

Investing in the science to solve MenB

This autumn we launched a new ‘catalyst grant’ call for research into MenB disease in teenagers and young adults in the UK.

This call was for applications to award scientific grants of up to £35,000 over 12 months, for innovative research focussed on the prevention, early recognition, diagnosis and management of MenB.

Our aim? To fund research that delivers better protection for teenagers and young adults against the devastation of MenB. Whilst the fund will specifically award grants for those working in the UK, we also hope the findings delivered will support defeating MenB globally, as a disease that has no borders.

The research projects selected are supported by The Jessica Bethell Charitable Foundation, in memory of Jessica, who tragically died from MenB aged just 24 years. It is through their on-going fundraising that we can launch and administer this fund, naming it the Jessica Bethell MenB Grant Call in honour of Jessica and the Foundation’s incredible supporters.

The importance of funding MenB research now

Why is now the moment to invest in MenB research? With an increase in cases post-COVID in the UK (which is disproportionally affecting teenagers and young adults), now is the moment to look for the solutions to defeat this disease.

Throughout 2020-2021, rates of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) in England were at a historic low – a decline attributed to social distancing and COVID-19 lockdown measures.

However, following the withdrawal of COVID-19 restrictions, IMD case numbers began to rise in England, with a sharp increase seen in teenagers and young adults throughout autumn 2021.

Between September and November 2021, data and analysis from UKHSA showed that there were 53 IMD cases, with 42% of cases occurring in 15-19 year olds, compared to 14% during the same period in 2019.

Crucially, the number of IMD cases amongst this age group was also higher during this period in 2021 (22 cases) than in 2018 (16 cases) and 2019 (19 cases), showing an upward trend in teenagers and young adults.

Of the 53 IMD cases reported, nearly all were MenB. Data from 2022 indicates this dominance of MenB is a continued trend; between January and March ’22 MenB was responsible for 89% of overall cases, and all of those in the under 25’s.

For those affected, they can experience a long road to recovery, disability (both visible and hidden) and, in the very worst cases, death (as Jessica’s family so tragically did). Understanding more can only help to improve outcomes, and ultimately prevention.

Why are teenagers and young adults more susceptible to increasing MenB?

Due to how social they are, teenagers are the most likely age group to carry meningococcal bacteria in the back of the nose and throat. They can harmlessly transmit the bacteria to others without knowing, with only a small number of people exposed becoming ill.

This illness happens when the bacteria breaks through the protective lining of the nose and throat and enters the bloodstream. For some the bacteria cross the blood-brain barrier, causing meningitis, while in others overwhelming septicaemia happens so quickly that there is no time for meningitis to develop.

Vaccines offer life-saving protection against meningitis and septicaemia and, in 2015, a MenB vaccine was introduced into the UK’s routine infant immunisation schedule, protecting babies (who are the most at risk age group from IMD) from around 73% of MenB strains circulating in England.

Since 2015, teens have been offered the MenACWY vaccine in school (usually in Years 9 and 10). This vaccine directly protects them against the A, C, W and Y strains of meningitis. It also has wider benefits, stopping teenagers from carrying the bacteria and passing it on, thus preventing IMD in other age groups too.

For MenB this is a different story. Because the currently available MenB vaccine uses a different type of technology, it does not stop the bacteria from being carried and transmitted. That means vaccinating teenagers against MenB would only have direct benefits, limiting its perceived cost effectiveness and stopping its introduction as a routine vaccination in the in UK.

As a result, teenagers remain at increased risk of MenB disease. This is particularly true for those starting university, as seen in autumn 2021, where 85% of cases in 15-24 year olds, were students in further or higher education.

Finding solutions through science

Solutions to better outcomes for any disease can be complex but do ultimately result in better prevention and support. We hope that funding research into a cause of meningitis which is most affecting people at the very beginning of their adult lives will enable generations to come to live without the fear of MenB. That’s an outcome we believe is worth striving for.

More on the Jessica Bethell Men B Grants call

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