Aussie treatment could fight 'big problem' killing 3.8 million a year

A new drug has been developed by a team of University of NSW researchers who have pooled their skills to fight fungal infections.

Australian-based scientists have developed a new drug to fight the growing threat of fungal infections. The synthetic treatment was announced after a study found dangerous strains are annually causing 6.5 million severe infections a year globally, and killing up to 3.8 million people.

Some fungal infections have adapted to shake off common drugs due to their widespread use, but more worryingly the superbug candida auris strain actually emerged in humans already resistant to most treatments, causing serious problems in hospitals in the United States.

Candida auris sticks to surfaces when somebody colonised by it comes into a healthcare setting and leaves it behind. They have to scrub the whole operating theatre to get rid of this bug if it’s in there,” biotechnology expert Dr Megan Lenardon explained to Yahoo News Australia.

Mould in the background. A gloved hand holding a mould sample.
Some fungus strains grow in human lung tissue in a way similar to mould on bread. Source: Getty (File)

Is the drug ready for human trials?

Lenardon is part of a multidisciplinary team led by University of NSW chemical engineer Professor Cyrille Boyer that developed the new synthetic polymer drug to fight fungal infections.

The technology has been tested using modelling, but they are yet to begin human trials, as they lack the funding to do so. “We are still working to improve their efficiency and efficacy and selectivity,” Boyer said. "We are at the early stage of development, and we need money."

How will the drug be applied?

While synthetic polymers have been developed as a bacterial treatment, they have not previously been used to attack fungal infections. Traditional treatments use protein parts called peptides, but they are hard to synthesise and they are quickly degraded by the human body. Boyer’s synthetic polymers can act like peptides and can be produced from raw materials costing as little as $100 a kg.

The polymers will likely be applied systemically to treat blood infections, but they could also be used in a topical cream to treat superficial infections on the nails, or to prevent fungal biofilms that spread on medical devices like catheters.

Human cells infected with Candida albicans over a period of 24 hours. On left: untreated, with damaged human cells indicated by a red dye. On right: after treatment with the synthetic polymer, which indicates the prevention of infection.
Human cells infected with candida albicans over a period of 24 hours. Source: UNSW

Am I at risk of fungal infection?

Fungal spores are all around us, but they generally only severely impact those who are immunocompromised. Infections are often seen in cancer chemotherapy patients, as well as HIV AIDS patients. People taking monoclonal antibody therapies for rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory diseases are also susceptible to infection because the drug can weaken the immune system.

What could fungus do to our bodies?

When it comes to medically relevant infections the three main players are aspergillus, candida, cryptococcus and pneumocystis which she describes as “very different beasts”, but they generally break down human tissue in the same way they attack decaying leaf litter.

“Aspergillus are really great at breaking down things in soil. It produces lots of spores, and we breathe in millions every day and we’re fine. When we’re immunocompromised those spores can germinate in people's lungs. If you’ve ever seen like mouldy bread, there's beautiful fibrils radiating out, and aspergillus will do that in the lung,” she said.

“Cryptococcus is similar – you breathe in spores – then they get taken up by macrophages in lungs and go into your central nervous system.

“Candida albicans is a bit different because it lives in your gut and is part of your gut microbiota. When you’re immunocompromised it can escape the gut, get into your bloodstream, travel around into your major organs where it just invades and causes lesions, sepsis and death.”

Mould around a window sill.
Under the right conditions, mould will continue to grow inside homes as spores are always present in the air. Source: Getty

Is climate change increasing the risk of infection?

Relatively speaking there are few fungi that are pathogens of humans, because most can't grow at a warm 37 degrees which is necessary to survive in our bodies.

There are instances where a rare fungi will suddenly jump into a human, often in an exotic tropical location, but these are usually isolated cases. However, climate change will likely result in more fungi adapting to hot conditions.

“As the world gets hotter, you're going to get more and more fungi that are currently not pathogens that will be able to grow at 37 degrees. And so if they do find a human body, they might be capable of then causing disease,” Lenardon said.

In the United States and to some degree Australia, fungi that are able to infect humans are also increasing their environmental range, and this means more people will come into contact with them.

“Fungi divide a lot more rapidly than we do – an hour and a half in a lab as opposed to 30 years for a human – and they can adapt and evolve to warmer climates much faster than us,” Lenardon said.

The study has been published in the in the journal American Chemical Society.

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