OMRF discovery could help in fight against pneumonia

New research from OMRF could improve survival rates for patients with pneumonia.

Pneumonia is inflammation caused by bacterial or viral infections in the lungs. The illness affects about 10 million Americans annually, killing about 50,000, and is the third highest cause of hospitalization. Symptoms include fever, chills, a productive cough and shortness of breath.

Often, doctors use antibiotics to treat bacterial pneumonia, but in some patients with weakened immune systems—like the elderly—the antibiotics don’t work fast enough and antibiotic-resistant strains are becoming an increasing threat.

But in a paper published in the journal Immunobiology, OMRF scientists Ken Smith, Ph.D., and Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., used a process developed at OMRF to find a new way to fight pneumococcus bacteria—a major cause of pneumonia, ear infections, meningitis and even bacteremia or sepsis.

“One way patients can decrease their risk of diseases related to pneumococcal disease is through a vaccine, but that method only works if the person is vaccinated before they are exposed to infection and their immune system is strong enough to make an appropriate response,” said James, who holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research at OMRF. “With our method, we can create the kinds of antibodies a healthy immune system makes after receiving the vaccine, which could be used to treat patients with pneumonia while the antibiotics begin to work.”

The vaccine, Pneumovax23, helps recipients create antibodies against up to 23 different forms of disease-causing pneumococcus and, so far, OMRF researchers have isolated and reproduced antibodies to 19 of them, Smith said. Future research will concentrate on isolating the remaining antibodies as well as exploring how they aid the immune system in fighting off the infection.

“This has been done before on a smaller scale, but with our technology, we can make antibodies to a wide variety of pneumonia-causing bacteria in a short period of time,” he said.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health.