Research in Leicester will test new treatment target for sepsis

New research undertaken at the University of Leicester and funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) could identify new treatments for a life-threatening condition.

Sepsis is a serious complication that begins with infection and can very quickly escalate to a severe immune reaction and circulatory problems. Blood pressure falls, and vital organs shut down because they do not receive the oxygen-rich blood they need. It can take hold quickly and, without rapid treatment, can lead to multiple organ failure and death.

In the UK, there are around 250,000 cases of sepsis a year, with at least 44,000 people dying every year as a result of the condition.

Researchers in Leicester have previously found that people treated for sepsis in intensive care carry higher levels of a molecule called nociceptin, which is produced by immune cells.

They believe this chemical can cause the blood vessels to relax and is partly responsible for the dangerous drop in blood pressure, which can lead to organ failure.

Now, researchers have been awarded £190,000 from the BHF for a three-year project to further investigate the role of nociceptin in sepsis.

The team, led by Professor David Lambert in the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences at University of Leicester, will mimic sepsis in human immune cells maintained in the lab. They will measure how much nociceptin is produced and which type of immune cells are making it. Tests will then be carried out in the laboratory to work out how nociceptin interacts with and causes relaxation of human blood vessels.

Professor Lambert said: “Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition, and for approximately one in three patients admitted to intensive care with sepsis, the outcome is fatal.

“Despite decades of intense research and many new targets being identified, little has advanced from the laboratory to the clinic in finding new, effective treatments for this condition. Antibiotics and excellent clinical care remain the gold standard.

“We believe that nociceptin plays a crucial role in this disease. If we are able to more clearly define this role, this could pave the way for the development of new drugs to target this harmful molecule, which could reverse its actions.”

Dr Lucie Duluc, Research Advisor at the BHF, added: “The main treatment for sepsis is antibiotics, but these must be given quickly to avoid the risk of serious complications or death.

“It is important to better understand how the disease develops to identify a new target for treatment, and nociceptin could be one of them.

“Funding for this research has only been made possible by the fantastic generosity of the public. We rely on their support so that we can drive forward research programmes into heart and circulatory conditions, which are vital in our mission to beat heartbreak forever.”