Published: 23-03-2017 10:04 | Updated: 23-03-2017 11:36

Wallenberg Clinical Scholar for research on pneumococcal infections

KI researcher Birgitta Henriques Normark has been appointed Wallenberg Clinical Scholar 2017. She is granted SEK 15 million to find out how new strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria form and become resistant to antibiotics.

The programme Wallenberg Clinical Scholars is part of the SEK 1.7 billion that the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation is investing to boost medical research and the life sciences over a ten-year period. Universities with medical faculties are invited to nominate researchers for these research grants. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is responsible for the scientific evaluation.

“Clinical researchers have a pressured situation, so I am extremely happy that the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation’s Scholars program is providing some of our very best clinical researchers with the opportunity to concentrate on and expand their important research,” says the Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Göran K. Hansson, in a press release.

Colonizing the nose

Birgitta Henriques Normark, head physician and professor at KI’s Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology, leads the national surveillance of severe pneumococcal infections and the effects of the introduction of pneumococcal vaccines in Sweden. As a Wallenberg Clinical Scholar, she will identify strains of S. pneumoniae that are especially capable of spreading in the society and study mechanisms for their disease causing capability.

Why do some of pneumococcal strains stay colonizing the nose, while others penetrate the blood-brain barrier and cause meningitis? How does S. pneumoniae pickup genes and spread antibiotic resistance? One important aim will be to find treatment that prevent pneumococci from colonizing the nose and to spread across the blood-brain barrier and cause meningitis.

Rare types of pneumococci

Up to 60 percent of all pre-school children carry S. pneumoniae bacteria in the nose. Pneumococci are often harmless, but are also common causes of ear infections, lung infections, sepsis or meningitis. Around two million people die from pneumococcal infections every year globally.

To prevent severe pneumococcal infections, Swedish children are now being vaccinated against the most common types of S. pneumoniae. Vaccination has been successful in protecting vaccinated children, but has also led to the spread of more rare types of pneumococci, even in the elderly population. Some of these are resistant to antibiotics.