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Breakthrough may lead to ear infection vaccine

Scientists have announced a breakthrough that may lead to a vaccine for middle ear infections, a common childhood ailment.

Researchers from Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics and the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio have found that a bacterial pathogen responsible for middle ear infections, haemophilus influenza, contains genes that cause the bacteria to switch between two different cell types. It is this moving target that has made vaccine development difficult.

“Through this research, we have been able to understand the lifestyle of the bug and its adaptation to us as hosts and therefore we now have a better idea of which surface proteins are good targets for vaccine development,” said professor Michael Jennings, principal research leader at the Institute for Glycomics. “This is a very important stepping stone to a vaccine and will save developers a considerable amount of time and money.”

Middle ear infections are highly common in toddlers. The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne estimates 90 per cent of kids will have at least one by the time they enter school. Common symptoms include earache and fever, and Jennings said this condition is the most common reason for kids seeing a doctor or having surgery.

“The treatment of otitis media is currently with antibiotics and insertion of ear tubes,” he said. “If there were a vaccine, this would dramatically reduce the amount of antibiotics prescribed.”

The next step in the research is to see if findings could translate to treatments for other diseases caused by the same bacteria. These illnesses include pneumonia and obstructive pulmonary disease.

The findings are published in Nature Communications, and come after UK researchers showed acute otitis media – a more serious middle ear infection that can cause deafness – can be treated by getting kids blowing through a nasal balloon, bringing middle ear pressure back to normal levels.

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