Understanding the role of bacteria in the body

Understanding the biology of Neisseria cinerea for the prevention of meningococcal disease

Research Exley Tang Oxford

Bacteria exist in complex communities on and in the human body. Many bacteria that use us as their home cause no harm; in fact, several are directly beneficial. A key function of our ‘good bacteria’ is that they can keep ‘bad’ bacteria at bay. However, how this happens, and what can be done to exploit this protective effect has received little attention.

The research

This project will examine how the harmless bacterium called N. cinerea, can influence disease caused by N. meningitidis, a bacterium responsible for bloodstream poisoning and meningitis. The research team will study how the harmless bacterium colonises cells at the back of the throat and whether it can either block the binding and invasion of N. meningitidis, or directly kill it. They have already discovered that N. cinerea has molecular weapons that are often used to destroy neighbouring bacteria. Finally they will investigate whether they can use N. cinerea to stimulate our immune system to destroy N. meningitidis.


This project will tell us how a bacterium like N. cinerea can successfully live in us, and how a greater understanding of this process can be used to protect us from serious infections such as meningococcal disease. 


This two-year project started in July 2016.

July 2017 During the first year the team has used microscopic analysis to show that when harmless N. cinerea attach to human cells in the back of the throat they localise with human molecules that are also used by N. meningitidis.  This suggests that the two species could compete with each other for attachment sites on the cells. The researchers have also found that harmless N. cinerea have the ability to hinder the efficient attachment of N. meningitidis to human cells.

During the next six months, the team aims to:

  • Further investigate the interactions between harmless N.cinerea and harmful N. meningitidis 
  • Determine whether harmless N. cinerea can be used to stimulate the body’s immune system to destroy the harmful N. meningitidis

A paper has been accepted for publication in Infection and Immunity

A poster presentation is in preparation for the European Initiative for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases(EIMID) conference being  held in Sept 2017.


Dr Rachel Exley and Prof Christoph Tang

Research Institution

University of Oxford

Duration of project

24 months

More information

If you would like more information about this project, or our research in general, please contact us on research@meningitisnow.org