New hope for sufferers of urinary tract infection

Dr Matthew Sullivan

New understanding of a bacterium that causes urinary tract infection (UTI) is providing fresh hope for sufferers of this common condition, following a breakthrough by a Griffith microbiologist.

Dr Matthew Sullivan, from Griffith’s School of Medical Science and Menzies Health Institute Queensland, fought off 270 other leading researchers with the award of a major international accolade at the 20th Lancefield International Symposium on Streptococci and Streptococcal Diseases (LISSSD), for his work uncovering a genetic regulator that controls the severity of UTI streptococcal disease.

Dr Sullivan presented his research on how streptococci cause UTI, which he published earlier this year in the prestigious Journal of Infectious Diseases.

In recognition of the impact of his work, LISSSD 2017 awarded Dr Sullivan Best Poster on Streptococcal Infections, an esteemed international accolade judged by infectious disease physicians, clinical microbiologists and researchers in the field of infection.

Among the most common infections

UTIs are among the most common infections in humans. In the USA alone, UTIs account for $3.5 billion in medical expenditure each year. Up to 40% of women have experienced at least one UTI episode in their lifetime. High rates of antibiotic resistance among bacteria that cause UTI is also a worrying trend.

The bacterium Streptococcus agalactiae causes 160,000 cases of UTI in the USA each year at a cost of $88 million to the healthcare system annually.

This reported incidence equates to 3 million cases globally and 12,000-56,000 in Australia annually. The bacterium also cause severe systemic and acute infections in other parts of the human body, and is a major cause of life-threatening neonatal infections.

The mechanisms by which streptococci cause UTI are not well understood. Dr Sullivan’s study characterised the role of a crucial control switch in the bacterium that determines that severity of UTI.

“Our work shows that this switch in the bacteria, termed CovR, is a master controller of how streptococci cause UTI,” says Dr Sullivan. “It’s like a genetic switch in the bacteria that can turn off or on, to dial up or down the severity of UTI and allow the bacteria to survive in the body and evade immunity.

“The CovR switch plays a complex role in infection because our findings show that it influences many genes and proteins in the bacteria,” he says.

“If we can unpick this complex molecular web, we can understand how streptococci cause infections, which might inform novel treatment and preventative strategies in the future for this important human pathogen.”