A collaborative group of researchers at the University of Georgia has received a grant to study the leading cause of pneumonia in older children and young adults. Researchers will study Bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae with a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
A fundamental goal of the new research project is to better understand how the bacterium eludes the immune system and common antibiotic treatment, which can often lead to persistent infection or life-altering conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
"These bacteria have evolved to live in the human respiratory tract and have developed ways to avoid the natural defenses that keep us safe," said Duncan Krause, principal investigator for the project and professor of microbiology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "We want to understand the chemical features of Mycoplasma pneumoniae and the conditions inside the human body that cause these persistent infections so we can one day develop more effective treatments."
Alongside Krause is a team of co-investigators from various departments and colleges on the UGA campus including Thomas Krunkosky, associate professor of veterinary biosciences and diagnostic imaging in the College of Veterinary Medicine; Jason Locklin, associate professor in the Franklin College and the College of Engineering; Michael Tiemeyer, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College; and Bingqian Xu, associate professor in the College of Engineering.
Working together, these researchers will employ a series of experiments to determine how M. pneumoniae moves within the human airways.
M. pneumoniae travels like a rock climber, attaching and releasing chemical bonds as it traverses human tissues one foothold at a time. Eventually, the bacteria reach areas of the respiratory tract where new chemical bonds allow it to stick and multiply, leading to infection and illness.
The research team will examine the molecular features of both M. pneumoniae and the surface of the human airway to determine why they glide over certain areas and are static on others.
"The human airway is lined with complex sugar molecules called glycans that contribute to the chemistry of mucus membranes in those tissues," said Krause, who is also director of UGA's Faculty of Infectious Diseases. "The differences in these glycans may be the key to understanding how and where M. pneumoniae moves and why it causes these chronic infections that are so difficult to treat."