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12 Nov 2022

World Pneumonia Day: Scientists continue to fight against the world’s deadliest infection

Responsible for more than one million deaths every year, bacterial pneumonia poses a major ongoing challenge for global health and remains the biggest infectious killer of children and adults.

Doherty Institute scientists are using today’s World Pneumonia Day (12 November) to raise awareness about the deadly infection and renew the call for global action.

University of Melbourne Professor Christopher McDevitt, a laboratory head at the Doherty Institute, said that an important part of his research focuses on is understanding how the lungs change their chemistry to fight off bacterial infection.

Streptococcus pneumoniae remains the primary cause of bacterial pneumonia, and is a major focus of our research,” Professor McDevitt said.

“Our team investigates the molecular basis of how S. pneumoniae causes disease, how the lungs respond to fight off the infection, and develop novel therapeutics to stop the pathogen and prevent disease.”

Professor McDevitt said that, while vaccination is still the best way to prevent pneumonia, creating vaccines that are effective against ever-evolving strains continues to be a significant challenge.

“The S. pneumoniae [pneumococcal] vaccines we currently use provide protection from only a fraction of the variants in circulation,” Professor McDevitt said. “They work really well against the included variants, but the pathogen has evolved much faster than the vaccines can keep up. This has been happening against the backdrop of rising rates of antibiotic resistance.

“We’ve got a window to try and strengthen our antimicrobial defences against this organism. If we don’t, we risk returning to the pre-antibiotic, pre-vaccine era, where your chance of dying from pneumonia was about one in three,” Professor McDevitt said.

In 2019, Professor McDevitt led an interdisciplinary team using state-of-the-art imaging techniques to reveal how the immune system uses zinc as an innate antimicrobial for protection during infection by S. pneumoniae. Building on that work, in 2022 he led a global team that developed the application of a compound, called an ionophore, to break S. pneumoniae resistance to frontline antibiotics by “weaponising” lung zinc against the pathogen. 

Their findings lay the foundation to restore the efficacy of frontline antibiotics against drug-resistant S. pneumoniae, although more work remains to be done. Rescuing antibiotics, developing new antimicrobials, and population-wide vaccination strategies are all crucial components to control the burden of pneumococcal disease in the community.