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Understanding the role of bacteria in the body

Dr Rachel Exley & Professor Christoph Tang

University of Oxford

July 2016 – June 2018

Research microscope image

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


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 commensal (good) bacteria is that they can keep pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria at bay. However, how this happens, and what can be done to exploit this protective effect has received little attention.

What the research team planned to do

This project investigated how the commensal bacterium, N. cinerea, can influence disease caused by N. meningitidis, the most common cause of bacterial meningitis and associated septicaemia in the UK. The research team studied how N. cinerea colonises cells from human airways and whether it can either block the binding or invasion of N. meningitidis. They also investigated whether N. cinerea can be used to stimulate our immune system to destroy the pathogenic N. meningitidis.

Summary and impact of results

During this project, the research team has shown that:

  • When commensal N. cinerea attach to human epithelial cells they localise with human molecules that are also used by N. meningitidis; suggesting that the two species compete for attachment sites on the cells. They have also found that N. cinerea can hinder the efficient attachment of N. meningitidis to human cells;
  • N. cinerea antigens can elicit functional immune responses against N. meningitidis.

These findings show that commensal N. cinerea could protect against meningococcal disease by triggering the immune system to recognise and respond to these pathogenic bacteria.

This project has increased understanding of the interactions between bacteria that live in complex communities in the back of the nose and throat and could be applied to the development of future vaccines.

Some results have already been published and others will shortly be submitted for publication.

More information

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