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This article is part of a series of research impact stories related to our REF 2021 submission.

The bacteria, Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus), is a major cause of death in children under five worldwide, causing diseases such as pneumonia, septicaemia and meningitis. While vaccines are effective at protecting against disease, a better understanding of the different strains of the pneumococcus in an individual and circulating in the population is essential to assess and inform vaccine strategies. 

Dr Jason Hinds and team from the Institute for Infection and Immunity have channelled their research efforts into developing a genomics-based tool that can detect different strains, or serotypes, of the pneumococcus. 

Through collaboration with researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Imperial College, who determined the genetics of the initial 90 known serotypes of the pneumococcus, Dr Hinds’ team began work to develop a diagnostic tool with funding from the Wellcome Trust for the Bacterial Microarray Group at St George’s (BµG@S). The team developed a test that could identify the different serotypes within an individual from clinical samples, such as nasopharyngeal swabs. 

The first study to evaluate the effectiveness of the tool with collaborators in Thailand showed that it offered significant improvements compared to the World Health Organization recommended method. Further research, including a methods evaluation funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found the tool to be the leading serotyping method available, with very high sensitivity and specificity for multiple serotype detection in clinical samples. 

“The results of our early studies showed that we had developed an effective method for detecting the presence of multiple pneumococcal serotypes within an individual,” says Dr Hinds. “The next steps were to ensure the technology could be accessed more widely to assess pneumococcal vaccine impact in different populations worldwide.” 

Following the development of the tool, significant work was done by the group and colleagues to influence uptake and recommend the test for use. The method has since been adopted on a global scale, enabled by a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded roll-out of the technology and cited in recommendations from the World Health Organization’s Pneumococcal Carriage Group. To date, tens of thousands of samples have been tested from studies in more than 25 countries. 

“Regional hubs have been established to enable global access to the technology,” explains Dr Hinds.

“Researchers from as far afield as South Africa and Australia travelled to the UK for laboratory training and we also visited their sites to coordinate equipment setup and provide onsite training.” 

BUGS Bioscience LogoIn 2014, Dr Hinds and co-founders set up the not-for-profit company, BUGS Bioscience Ltd., to advance the technology developed by the Bacterial Microarray Group at St George’s. As of 2021, the company has received more than £2.5m in funding and contracts, enabling it to support ongoing research activity, global roll-out, plus investment in new products, services and software development; all with the aim of supporting organisations that seek to conquer infectious disease through universal vaccination. 

“If we can identify the different strains of infectious diseases in a population, we can design vaccines to effectively target these strains and prevent further spread of disease,” adds Dr Hinds. “Our work has shown that genomics-based diagnostic tools are critical in guiding future vaccine strategies to improve global health.  

“It’s been rewarding for the team at St George’s to see the method that we’ve developed used side-by-side with ongoing vaccine roll-out and new vaccine programmes to conquer infectious diseases, particularly in children and communities that need it most.” 

If you are interested in finding out more about how collaborative research partnerships can improve healthcare, the Enterprise and Innovation Office at St George’s, provides support for all commercialisation and innovation activity at the university.

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