WASHINGTON — New research suggests that some children repeatedly develop tonsil infections and strep throat because they have a gene that prevents them from developing immunity.
“It’s a classic scenario where you have a genetic risk factor,” said Shane Crotty, professor of Immunology at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. “Most infections you catch and your immune system develops immunities and you don’t get sick again.”
Crotty said genetic susceptibility to the disease allows the bacteria to target the immune system to prevent people from developing immunity. You can’t turn that gene “off,” but Crotty said he believes knowing what’s happening could help lead to the development of a preventive vaccine.
The study included tonsil samples of 146 children 5 to 18 years old who had on average a dozen cases of tonsillitis and strep infections and children who didn’t. Studying cases of good immunity development also might lead to a vaccine against strep throat, Crotty said.
Identifying kids earlier who might be vulnerable to multiple bouts of a painful ailment and taking steps to help them avoid exposure might reduce a significant amount of suffering, Crotty noted.
Multiple bouts of tonsillitis are part of current medical guidelines for the removal of tonsils.
“Strep throat is the bacteria growing in the back of your throat, but they also literally grow in and on the tonsils as well,” Crotty said. “So, removing the tonsils removes one of the major surfaces that particular bacteria grows on.”
There’s a statistically significant more likelihood that people with the gene could develop the infection Crotty said, but it doesn’t mean they absolutely will. Further research will be needed to quantify the degree to which some genetically susceptible people could have a problem with the bacteria versus others.