Stroke is responsible for ten per cent of deaths worldwide. Up to a fifth of these deaths are from pneumonia and other infections following the stroke. Dr Connie Wong now knows why.
Connie and her team discovered that stroke not only damages the brain but weakens the immune system and allows bacteria in the gut to escape and cause infection in other parts of the body.
The $1.25 million CSL Centenary Fellowship will give Connie the opportunity to work out how and why the gut barrier breaks down after a stroke.
She’s also going to investigate how the brain communicates with the immune system; find new strategies to restore the gut barrier’s integrity; and test novel therapies to revive the immune system after a stroke so it can keep fighting infection.
“I’m very intrigued by the brain. I want to understand how a brain injury, such as a stroke, can change the way the body fights an infection.”
“Clinicians will give patients antibiotics, but clinical trials have shown that antibiotics aren’t effective in reducing the rates of infection or improving patients’ survival after infection,” she says. In 2011, Connie and her colleagues discovered that after a stroke the brain can send signals to relax the immune system. This prevents inflammation from damaging the brain while it’s repairing itself – but it also stops immune cells fighting infections elsewhere in the body.
Then, in 2016, the team were the first to show that a stroke also changes the gut, making the gut barrier permeable. This allows bacteria to escape to other parts of the body, causing the killer infections. Now that Connie knows where the infections are coming from, she hopes to find ways to shut them down.
“You can get gap-filler for cracks in your house - we need something similar for the gut, like new drugs to seal up the gut barrier and stop the bacteria from escaping,” she says with a smile. Connie also hopes her work will reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics in the treatment of stroke.
“I hope that in five years’ time as a result of the CSL Centenary Fellowship I will have made a difference in how patients with stroke are treated, found new ways of stopping infection, and developed therapies to wake up the immune system again without damaging effects.”
Dr Connie Wong is a National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at Monash University. Her research is supported by the National Heart Foundation and the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Further reading: research.monash.edu/en/persons/connie-wong