Inaugural Group A Streptococcus focus meeting – Bringing together research and patients

Posted on February 24, 2020   by Dr Helge C. Dorfmueller, Dr Claire Turner and Dr Alex McCarthy

Supported by the Microbiology Society, the inaugural Group A Streptococcus (GAS) UK meeting was hosted at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in October 2019. Here we talk to organisers Dr Helge Dorfmueller, Dr Claire Turner and Dr Alex McCarthy about their experience of the event.

Tell us a little about your research

Helge Dorfmueller: As a junior group leader at the University of Dundee, working on Group A Streptococcus (GAS), I started working on these airborne human pathogenic bacteria in 2015. Our focus is on the study of surface carbohydrates, that are essential for GAS virulence.

Alex McCarthy: Based within the MRC Centre for Molecular Bacteriology & Infection, at Imperial College London, research in my group at the Imperial College London investigates how innate immune responses are fine-tuned through families of immunomodulatory receptors, and how bacterial pathogens can exploit these immunomodulatory receptors for virulence. A major focus of our current research is on GAS.  

Claire Turner: I have been working on GAS for over ten years and my passion for researching this pathogen began with my PhD at Imperial College London, working with Professor Shiranee Sriskandan. I now run my own research group as part of the Florey Institute at the University of Sheffield.

How did the event come about?

Helge:

I realised that we didn’t have an actual GAS research community and strongly believed that through collaboration, we could do much better to benefit our research, GAS patients and ultimately human health. Every minute, one patient dies from GAS infection worldwide! Importantly, invasive and severe disease rates are increasing.

The idea for the first Group A Streptococcus Focused Meeting was born, and with the help and support of Professor Sriskandan and Dr Claire Turner, I was able to approach approximately 25 group leaders throughout the UK, who dedicate their research and clinical work to GAS. Furthermore, we engaged with patients, who have survived invasive Streptococcal infections as well as relatives of patients, who sadly had lost their lives.

It was very important to organise a meeting that brought together researchers, clinicians, Public Health England, patients and patient support groups. With the support of Professor Beate Kampmann from LSHTM, we secured our venue. Ailsa MacKintosh from the University of Dundee and Tui Swinnen, from the LSHTM, both helped with administration for the event.

Tell us more about the day

Helge: The meeting was extremely beneficial for all participants. During the meeting we had an opportunity to learn about many GAS aspects ranging from the attendees’ research projects, clinical challenges including diagnosis and treatment, public awareness of GAS infections, future potential treatment avenues including vaccine development to infection rates and risk and mortality rates in the UK. We invited Doreen Cartledge and Wayne Page, survivors of necrotizing fasciitis from the Lee Sparks Foundation, as well as Julia and Michael Kerin, the parents of Connor, who sadly passed away as a little boy 20 years ago. Whilst it was emotionally overwhelming, at the same time it was very important to all of us, as we learnt from their devastating experience and it gave us an opportunity to better understand the needs of the affected patients and families. Likewise, they learned from our approaches and scientific challenges. Most importantly, we all realised that we have in common a shared aim of raising the awareness of these horrible bacterial diseases and to improve human health affected by Streptococci infections.

Alex: GAS research is new in my laboratory; therefore, the meeting provided a critical opportunity to introduce my research to the wider GAS research community whilst simultaneously establishing contact with other UK research groups. Importantly, the event allowed each research group to showcase their knowledge, resources and/or research strengths. Unquestionably, the meeting enhanced my understanding of the clinical impact and epidemiology of GAS infections. In addition, my knowledge of GAS immune responses and virulence strategies was broadened. This exchange was incredibly valuable for a new research group in the GAS field – in particular, knowing which groups to contact for GAS resources, protocols and collaborations. In fact, research in my group has already benefitted from sharing of GAS resources and protocols during this event.

What are the future plans for this event?

Alex: We plan to host the 2nd GAS UK meeting in Autumn 2020 and continue on an annual basis.

And finally, why did you join the Microbiology Society?

Helge: I joined the Microbiology Society for similar reasons as the ones that triggered me to organize this first GAS UK meeting: My curiosity to meet other researchers from similar but diverse backgrounds and to learn from their expertise. The Society and our meeting both give us the unique opportunity to bring people together that establish new opportunities to network and exchange knowledge.

I am very grateful for the funding we have received from the Microbiology Society and New England Biolabs – as well as additional funding from the MRC – to organize and run this first of hopefully many GAS focus research meetings in the UK.

Alex: I joined the Microbiology Society in order to broaden my understanding of microbes and microbial diseases. Throughout my postdoctoral training, membership provided opportunities to meet other members, to pick-up new skills, approaches and expertise, and to present research findings in a supportive environment. As a junior principal investigator, membership is now providing opportunities to share experiences and scientific knowledge with other research groups as I start to establish my own. 

Claire: I joined the Microbiology Society in order to extend my knowledge beyond GAS and to meet other researchers. Often it is easy to become so focused on the one microbe you are working on by only attending subject-specific conferences, yet knowledge of other microbes can provide new ideas and ways of thinking that may take your research into new directions. You may also form unexpected collaborations that bring about new ideas and projects.