Queen's University researchers make pneumonia breakthrough

Professor Jose Bengochea
Professor Jose Bengochea

A CHANCE conversation between researchers at Queen's University Belfast has led to a "eureka moment" breakthrough for the treatment of pneumonia.

The serious inflammatory lung condition kills more than five per cent of people in the UK every year - 3.2 million people and is the leading infectious cause of death among children under five worldwide.

One of the most common causes of pneumonia is a lung infection with the bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae, speciality of Professor Jose Bengoechea, Centre Director at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen's University.

He and colleague Professor Cliff Taggart were having a casual conversation with Professor Chris Scott from the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology when the idea for the treatment crystallised.

While talking, the researchers realised that an idea Professor Scott was developing for cancer treatment could also be used for tackling deadly Klebsiella infections.

"This microbe is a particularly difficult bug to treat due to increasing number of isolates resistant to virtually all currently available antibiotics," Professor Bengoechea said.

"It actually hides in the lung by sneaking inside immune cells, making it exceptionally hard to access with antibiotics.

"This hidden infection can then re-emerge and cause pneumonia in patients."

The trio were discussing Professor Scott's lab work using nanotechnology to target chemotherapy directly into cancer cells when the researchers realised that the same targeted approach could be used to get antibiotics directly to the deadly bacteria lurking in infected immune cells.

Professor Scott said it was "a perfect example of how thinking out of the box and combining very different expertise, you can have an eureka moment".

"Pneumonia remains a global health emergency. By developing this treatment that has proven to tackle this deadly strain of bacteria, our research partnership could change the lives of people across the world," he said.

The team's findings have been published in the prestigious Journal of Controlled Release.

They will continue further research over the next five years to understand how best patients with pneumonia can be treated with this specialised technology.