A researcher at The University of Western Ontario has received over $603,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to investigate how and why a group of bacterial toxins leads to the development of toxic shock syndrome and other serious diseases. John McCormick is an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, and a scientist with the Lawson Health Research Institute. His research is one of 18 projects at Western and Lawson to receive new CIHR operating grants totaling more than $9.55 million.
"We are looking at how these superantigen toxins bind to proteins on the surface of white blood cells. This binding causes the over-activation of the immune system which can result in the patient developing shock," says McCormick. The bacteria that produce these toxins include Streptococcus pyogenes (responsible for flesh-eating disease) and Staphylococcus aureus, including methicillin-resistant S. aureus, also known as the "MRSA" superbug.
"A patient can have a localized infection, for example, a staph infection in their toe, and that bacteria will release toxins which will go systemic, all through the body, even though the infection hasn't spread. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but that won't have any affect on the toxins," explains McCormick. "By understanding how these toxins work, we can look at developing drug inhibitors that will target and neutralize the toxins."
On the flip side, McCormick believes these toxins could be utilized to fight cancer. "We know these toxins cause potent activation of the immune system, so if we could engineer them to bind only to cancer cells, we could get the immune system to destroy the cancer. That's a long-term goal we have."
McCormick holds a New Investigator Award from the CIHR and an Early Research Award from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation. He is a member of the Department's Superantigen Group (http://www.uwo.ca/mni/research/sags.html), the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics, and Western's Infectious Diseases Research Group.
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