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Researcher Recognised for work into Toxic Shock

15 November 2004

Researcher Recognised for work into Toxic Shock

A researcher at The University of Auckland has been recognised for his work into toxic shock, the disease that struck celebrity Lana Coc-Kroft earlier this year.

Dr Thomas Proft, a senior research fellow in the University’s Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, has been awarded the prestigious Queenstown Molecular Biology prize for his work into two bacteria – Streptococcus pyogenes (strep) and Staphylococcus auereus (staph).

These two bacteria are harmless to most people, but can lead to strep throat and food poisoning and in serious cases can cause invasive diseases such as the rare flesh-eating disease Necrotizing Fasciitis and toxic shock. Dr Proft’s work could eventually lead to a vaccine for the potentially fatal disease of toxic shock.

“Strep and staph infections are an increasing problem in New Zealand. There are about 15 cases of invasive strep diseases in Middlemore Hospital alone each year. The mortality rates for toxic shock are high (50-70%) and there is currently no specific treatment or vaccination available,” Dr Proft says.

Since the 1980s there has been a sharp increase in staph and strep infections. The new strains are often termed ‘superbugs’ or ‘killer bugs’ as they are more aggressive and often resistant to antibiotics.

In the late 1990s researchers in the United States sequenced the first strep genome . Dr Proft, analysed the database of DNA sequences and discovered three new superantigens. A large part of this work was done in collaboration with Professor John Fraser, Head of the School of Medical Sciences, and Professor Ted Baker, a structural biologist at the University’s School of Biological Sciences.

“These are extremely potent toxins that send our immune system into overdrive. Less than one picogram, which is one million-millionth of a gram, per millilitre of body fluid can cause fatal shock,” he says.

Dr Proft believes these superantigens cause strep and staph to progress from a minor illness into toxic shock. He is now looking at ways to prevent the superantigens from binding to the body’s T-cells to avoid the fatal immune response

“We have generated defective toxins and these could be very useful to develop a vaccine.” he says.

Dr Proft toxic shock research has been in collaboration with the United Kingdom’s Imperial College for the past three years. He is now extending the research by getting samples from people with invasive strep or staph who have been admitted to Middlemore Hospital, Auckland Hospital, and the Menzies School of Research in Darwin.

He says the results so far suggest that the lack of neutralising (protective) antibodies against these toxins is a risk factor for toxic shock and other invasive strep diseases.

Dr Proft has been awarded the Queenstown Molecular Biology prize at the QMB’s annual conference which will begin on November 28th. Each year the conference attracts about 250 scientists from throughout Australasia and Asia as well as Europe and the United States.

Earlier this year, Dr Proft was awarded the Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship from the Health Research Council for his research into strep and staph. That fellowship will fund his research for the next four years.


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