Streptococcus pneumoniae likely is not a term immediately recognizable by most individuals, even if they have had unpleasant run-ins with the common bacterium. However, experts at Mississippi State University are pioneering pathways to new treatment options.
Primarily affecting those at opposite ends of a typical lifespan, it can cause ear infections in young children and serious cases of pneumonia in adults over 65. While illnesses caused by the bacterium can be treated with antibiotics, the infection may evolve into sepsis—a serious blood disorder—if a case of pneumonia is not responded to quickly.
For those at any age, it is a common complication of influenza.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that help may be on the way from Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Bindu Nanduri, an associate professor in CVM’s basic sciences department, has discovered new information about the genes in the bacterium and how changes in them can enable better treatment and vaccination options.
In explaining her investigation, Nanduri began with the interior of human nasal cavities where the bacteria live and can spread when a body’s immune system is compromised.
She used the example of a child suffering with the common cold who is unable to fight off infection. In that scenario, the bacteria forms in the middle ear, becomes an infection that takes the form of any of 90 different strains and becomes a challenge to cure.
While a number of vaccines are available, Nanduri said none can “carry all of the strains and, because of that, treatment and limiting the infection is very difficult.”
Medication overuse leading to antibiotic resistance is an additional complication. “The bacteria cannot survive without a host, and, in these cases, the hosts are humans,” she said.
Nanduri holds a master’s degree in biosciences from the University of Roorkee in India and a doctorate in biochemistry and microbiology from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. She is a widely sought authority in bioinformatics, the development of computer software to better understand biological data.
At the MSU veterinary college, “We are removing certain genes in the bacteria that make it impossible for it to survive in the host” and “creating treatments that remove those integral genes so that survival in the body is not possible,” she said.
Dr. Stephen Pruett, basic sciences department head, said Nanduri’s research in pathogen-host interactions has helped multidisciplinary centers at the land-grant institution earn a major grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence. COBRE grants are highly competitive, he emphasized.
Designed to support a framework for their investigations of pathogen-host interactions, the federal grant covers Nanduri’s CVM research and that of colleagues at the campus institutes of Genomics, Biocomputing and Biotechnology, and Imaging and Analytical Technologies.
Pruett said Nanduri’s discoveries are providing pathways to new treatment options.
“These ‘mutants’ that Dr. Nanduri produces by removing components are much more easily contained by human immune systems,” he said. “Thus, the medications that would produce this change in the bacteria and block their movement are an entirely new category of treatments.”
According to public health officials, pneumonia causes approximately 1.1 million hospital admissions in the U.S. each year—and 53,000 deaths.
That is why novel approaches like Nanduri’s to treat and decrease illness severity are so important, Pruett said. Her “research record is excellent, in terms of both publication and competitive research funding, and the qualifications and accomplishments of the investigators are important criteria in scoring COBRE applications.”
He praised the NIH and COBRE for providing funding that has allowed her to make significant advancements.
“Dr. Nanduri is often asked to collaborate with investigators around the world on analyzing complex data sets obtained from nucleic acid sequencing and proteomics,” Pruett said. “We are fortunate to have her expertise. She’s not only enthusiastic about her projects, but also about collaborating with other scientists, which makes her an even greater attribute to the COBRE work.”
Nanduri expressed mutual feelings.
“The funding and advancements are possible because of the dedication of the university and CVM’s administration,” she said. “I am glad to be doing this work in an environment that cultivates relationships that benefit public health research.”