International consortium goes campy

29 July 2002
ASSOCIATE Professor Al Lastovica of the Department of Medical Microbiology has joined eight leading laboratories from Europe and the United States in an international consortium to perform a three-year study on Campylobacter, the most common cause of bacterial gastroenteritis among humans.

Campylobacter is a genus of bacteria that causes infectious diarrhoea and is particularly common among very young children. These organisms are responsible for other conditions such as the Gullain Barré Syndrome, a debilitating and sometimes fatal neurological disorder. The bacterium is found in food animals such as poultry, cattle, pigs, sheep, ostriches and shellfish, as well as in pets such as cats and dogs.

A world authority on the subject, Lastovica was invited by Professor William Keevil of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom to take part in the CAMPYCHECK project, funded by the European Union.

The consortium will include six laboratories from Europe – located in the UK, Denmark, Italy and Ireland – and two from the US.

UCT is the sole contributor from the southern hemisphere.

"One of the main functions of this consortium is to look for the various species of Campylobacter found in foodstuff," explained Lastovica.

Traditionally, only one species, Campylobacter jejuni, was thought to be associated with human disease. At present, 17 species or subspecies of Campylobacter are isolated at the Red Cross Children's Hospital from diarrhoetic and septicaemic patients, he added.

The collaboration will also try to determine why other laboratories – both in South Africa and around the world - are missing most of the offensive organisms, and whether the technology has to be improved for isolating and detecting the various species of clinically relevant Campylobacter. "We either have a situation where the technology is not sufficiently sensitive enough to detect all Campylobacter species, or the South African strains are more diverse and prolific", noted Lastovica.

"We also need to find out where these other campylobacters are coming from. What are their reservoirs and how long do they persist in the environment?"

For the UCT segment, Lastovica has called in the assistance of Dr Trudy Wassenaar, a consultant molecular microbiologist based in Germany. "Cape Town is a key member in this project because this is the place where we see the other campylobacters turning up in patients," she observed.

"These species are not routinely looked for in other countries, so in this respect Cape Town is leading the way."

As the EU grant only covers the work of the European laboratories, Lastovica, like his colleagues from the US, has had to go looking for his wherewithal elsewhere.

The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) are among the institutions to have contributed generously to the project cache thus far.

The consortium will get together at least seven times over the next three years, with UCT hosting one of the 2003 gatherings.

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