The treatment, developed at the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, involves a gene being inserted into a harmless form of bacteria to help it remain in the nose and prompt an immune response.
It is hoped the enhanced friendly bacteria, known as Neisseria lactamica (Nlac), will protect against its close cousin, Neisseria meningitidis (N.meningitidis) – the strain responsible for causing a severe type of meningitis.
About 10 per cent of adults carry N.meningitidis in the back of their nose and throat with no signs or symptoms.
However, in some people it can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening bacterial infections, including meningitis and blood poisoning.
Meningitis occurs in people of all age groups, but affects mainly infants, young children and the elderly.
Meningococcal meningitis, which is a bacterial form of the disease and is responsible for 1,500 cases a year in the UK, can cause death in as little as four hours from the onset of symptoms.
Centre director Professor Robert Read said: “By enhancing Nlac with a gene, which we know helps bacteria stick to human body cells in larger numbers, we can increase the number of people who carry this friendly bacteria in their nose and thus block out N.meningitidis, which can cause invasive meningococcal disease.”
Prof Read’s team hope genetically enhancing the bacteria with a “sticky” surface protein will increase its ability to reside in the nose and generate a strong immune response that protects against the meningitis-causing bacteria.