From horse to hoarse: how strangles has helped unravel sore throats

  • Strangles research has helped scientists discover how bacteria that causes sore throats survives in humans.

    The process of unravelling the way bacteria cause disease has traditionally needed to be carried out one gene at a time.

    But scientists at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) have discovered a method that enabled every gene in streptococcus equi, the bacteria that causes strangles, to be tested at once.

    Meanwhile, world-leading scientists at the Houston Methodist Research Institute were trying to find out about which of 1,800 genes in streptococcus pyogenes are responsible for it infecting people and living in their throats.

    Streptococcus pyogenes is responsible for 600 million cases of pharyngitis in humans each year.

    The bacterium is also responsible for 100 million cases of other diseases, including scarlet fever, acute rheumatic fever and the flesh-eating infection necrotising fasciitis.

    The technique developed by the AHT was transferred to the Houston laboratory, where scientists found it worked as well on the human disease as its closely-related equine cousin.

    They quickly identified 92 of its 1,800 genes that were needed by the bug to grow in human saliva in the lab, which replicated the first step on the path to causing illness in people.

    “We are delighted that a technique developed at the AHT to learn more about streptococcus equi and strangles in horses has provided new results that could benefit people too,” said Dr Andrew Waller, head of bacteriology at the AHT.

    We have learnt a huge amount about our bug through following the work being done on human diseases, and it is great to be able to give something back in return.

    “This study highlights the similarities of animal and human pathogens.

    “We hope that our technique will also prove useful for the study and prevention of other diseases, regardless of the animal they affect.”

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    Dr James Musser, professor of pathology and genome medicine at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, added the ability to establish the importance of every gene in the human disease within one experiment “has the potential to accelerate research” into this pathogen.

    “In follow on tests, we were immediately able to confirm that six of these new genes really did affect growth in human saliva,” he said.

    “[This suggests] that this new information has exciting potential for developing novel therapeutics and vaccines with which to improve human health.”

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