Understanding the early stages of scrub typhus

team working at computer

Orientia tsutsugamushi is a bacterium that causes the life threatening human disease scrub typhus. Endemic in Thailand and throughout much of Asia, this mite-borne infection is neglected in both epidemiological recognition and in the understanding of its fundamental biology. While it is treatable, late and incorrect diagnosis can result in serious complications and death. It causes between 5% and 25% of fever cases reaching hospital in rural areas, which have a mortality rate of around 4%.

Recognising the need for research into the basic biology of the pathogen, this Newton Fund project has supported research into the early stages of cellular invasion by the bacterium. The team brought together expertise in bacterial cell biology and biochemistry, clinical aspects of scrub typhus, and high throughput screening approaches to develop a robust and reproducible high throughput genome wide RNAi imaging screen. This approach has never been reported for Orientia tsutsugamushi or for any other ricksettial bacteria and involves techniques new to the Thai and UK partners.

The research has already had a direct impact on scrub typhus clinical work with new methods for bacterial propagation from clinical samples being adopted with improved results on isolation rates from infected patients. The team also focused on raising public awareness of scrub typhus as delayed diagnosis is strongly associated with morbidity and mortality.

Because of the Newton Fund we now have a completely new collaboration with highly accomplished Thai scientists at the Siriraj Initiative in Systems Pharmacology, one in which both partners contribute equally to a scientifically exciting project on scrub
typhus – an understudied but important disease in Thailand.

Professor Nick Day

The Newton Fund makes possible this exciting collaborative research work. Our work will not only help improve the understanding and the treatment of Orientia but will also create new breeds of young scientists who are equipped to apply quantitative biology in solving reallife problems in Southeast Asia.

Dr Somponnat Sampattavanich

This project was shortlisted for the Newton Prize 2017.


Bacterial Pathogenesis: Dissecting the Early Stages of Cellular Invasion by the Obligate Intracellular Bacterium Orientia Tsutsugamushi

Project leads: Dr Jeanne Salje and Professor Nicholas Day, Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, University of Oxford, UK and Dr Somponnat Sampattavanich, Department of Pharmacology at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand

Project partners: Medical Research Council and National Science and Technology Development Agency

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