Fungus team wins funding

November 5, 2004

Aberdeen University has won almost £250,000 to target a common fungal condition that can prove deadly when it becomes "the disease of the diseased".

Microbiologist Neil Gow, one of the principal investigators in the Aberdeen Fungal Group, is leading pioneering research into Candida albicans , which creates misery for more than half of all women in the form of the infection thrush.

But candida, a yeast that lives in various parts of the body including the intestines and skin, moves from being an irritation to a serious threat in people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients.

"If you take patients who have had a bone-marrow transplant, about a quarter or a third will get a candida infection," Professor Gow said.

"Of those, 40 per cent will die from the candida even though doctors know the patient has it. That is because the drugs we have to treat the condition are inadequate. The drugs available just stop the fungus from growing, they do not easily eradicate it."

Professor Gow's team has won £243,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to continue its internationally acclaimed research into fungal conditions. It aims to help develop life-saving drug treatments for candida infections.

"We really wish we had a drug like penicillin. The thing about penicillin is that if you treat a sensitive bacterium with it, there is very little the bug can do about it. However, fungi are a bit more sophisticated than bacteria," Professor Gow said.

"Fungi have a cell wall made of chitin, the strongest material known on the planet - weight for weight it is stronger than steel. They also have a second scaffold component called beta-glucan in their wall for protection.

If chitin is damaged, the fungus makes more beta-glucan as a failsafe mechanism. If beta-glucan is damaged, then chitin compensates and protects the fungus."

Professor Gow and research fellow Carol Munro aim to devise ways of inhibiting this failsafe mechanism that would stop the fungal cell from protecting itself.

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