Studies on the Molecular Mechanisms of Meningococcal Interactions with Human Cells

Towards Anti-Adhesion Measures for the Control of Meningococcal Disease
  • Mumtaz Virji
Part of the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology book series (AEMB, volume 408)


The meningitis-causing organism, Neisseria meningitidis, is a human pathogen with exquisite affinity for the nasopharyngeal tissue of its host where it may exist as a harmless commensal in up to 30% of healthy individuals (DeVoe, 1982). However, in some cases, predisposing factors which are poorly understood, make the host susceptible to further invasion by these bacteria. In such cases, meningococci breach the epithelial barrier of the nasopharynx and disseminate throughout the body via the blood stream. Blood stream invasion is often associated with endothelial necrosis and intra-vascular coagulation which result in skin lesions common in disseminated meningococcal infections. Further tissue infiltration including that of the central nervous system may ensue in untreated cases, with serious outcomes including death. Factors that are implicated in bacterial virulence include polymeric proteins, pili, which are composed of repeating subunits (pilins). Pili extend beyond the capsule which is invariably present on the surface of bacteria isolated from blood or cerebrospinal fluid (csf) (DeVoe and Gilchrist, 1975). Two structural classes of pili occur in N. meningitidis. Class I pili are similar to gonococcal pili whereas Class II pili produce pilins of smaller Mr (Diaz et al, 1984, Perry et al., 1988, Virji et al., 1989). Both classes of pili occur in clinical isolates but are mutually exclusive within a given strain. Pili undergo phase and antigenic variation as a result of inter- and intra-genomic recombinational events (reviewed Saunders et al., 1994). In addition, two outer membrane proteins, Opa and Opc, may also increase the potential of meningococci to interact with human cells. These proteins are classified as Class 5 proteins or opacity proteins (since they impart opacity to colonies of bacteria expressing the proteins). Opa proteins are a family of antigenically variable proteins and occur in N. meningitidis as well as in the closely related organism N. gonorrhoeae (Cannon, 1994). In meningococci, 3–4 opa gene loci code for related proteins with conserved, semivariable and hypervariable domains. Opc protein is largely invariant and is expressed in all epidemic and highly pathogenic strains other than ET37 complex of serogroup C meningococci and gonococci (Olyhoek et al., 1991, Wang et al., 1993).


Outer Membrane Protein Human Endothelial Cell Neisseria Gonorrhoeae Meningococcal Disease Neisseria Meningitidis 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mumtaz Virji
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Oxford Department of PaediatricsJohn Radcliffe HospitalOxfordUK

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