Researchers ID how these diseases spread—plus, how we might be able to prevent them in the future.

By Cassie Shortsleeve
Updated: January 11, 2017
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Winters of the future may have far fewer sick days. Researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center might be one step closer to a future vaccine for illnesses like bacterial pneumonia, sinus infections, and ear infections, according to a study published today in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.

By studying mice, the scientists determined that the bacteria S. pneumoniae-which infects your respiratory tract and causes bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, and other issues like bacterial meningitis-has evolved throughout the years to give off a toxin called pneumolysin. This toxin leads to nasty symptoms like sneezing, coughing, and the sniffles. More or less, the bacteria are smart. They've learned that if they can cause the sick person they're infecting to expel all of those secretions, they can catch a ride onto their next victim. Ugh.

But here's the thing: When the researchers genetically engineered these bacteria so that they weren't able to make this toxin, the bacteria couldn't spread to other mice.

"There are a lot of studies that have looked at what happens within a host during infection, but no one has looked at how infectious agents get from one host to another," says Jeffrey Weiser, M.D., the study's lead author. "This study takes a whole new look at ways that we could intervene to prevent infection by looking at how bacteria gets to one host from another."

Currently, there is a pneumonia vaccine that protects against 13 types of this bacteria on the market. But as Weiser puts it: "The problem is there are many more than 13 types; and still over 600,000 deaths from pneumonia a year." So clearly, there's room for improvement.

So could the future be free of such winter woes, like pneumonia and sinus infections? It's too soon to say, but Weiser says this study opens the doors to new possibilities and strategies for identifying vaccines. (FYI influenza is the most common cause of pneumonia-even more reason you really do need to get the flu shot.)

Fingers crossed scientists study the common cold next.



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