University of Dundee

CLS scientist receives 2.2 million grant to investigate fatal infections

28 Sep 2009

 CLS scientist receives £2.2 million grant to investigate fatal infections

A College of Life Sciences Principal Investigator has been awarded £2.2million to explore means of combating fungal infections thought to contribute to the deaths of millions of people each year.

Professor Daan van Aalten received the grant from the Medical Research Council to investigate the “molecular mechanisms of fungal cell wall assembly” over the next five years. 

His team will examine the pathogenic fungus Aspergillus fumigatus. This bug is carried by the majority of the healthy population with no ill-effects, as growth of the organism is efficiently suppressed by the human immune system.

However, under conditions where the immune system is suppressed or weakened - for instance during chemotherapy, organ transplantation or HIV infection - these microbes are able to establish infections with a lethality of up to 90%. 

In many cases this is a “silent killer” that may be responsible for far more deaths than officially attributed to it. Annually, millions of patients are immunocompromised as a result of their therapeutic regimes and/or disease condition.  Around 25 per cent of these patients develop serious fungal infections.

Professor van Aalten’s research will examine the enzymes essential for building the cell wall – a “coat of armour” – that protects these microbes from their environment.  He explained that being able to interfere with the proteins that assemble this “coat of armour” could ultimately lead to the identification of opportunities for the discovery of novel anti-fungal drugs.

“From a medical point of view, the main problem with these fungal organisms comes when people become immunocompromised,” he said.

“Almost all of us carry fungal spores in our lungs but when people go into hospital for organ transplants, to be treated with chemotherapy, or contract HIV, these spores can develop into life-threatening infections.  Drugs are available, but these are not effective in the advanced stages of the disease. 

“In addition, bugs will ultimately become resistant to drugs so continuous new basic research is needed to identify and characterize good targets – proteins – within these fungal pathogens, setting the scene for the development of novel antifungal drugs.“

The funding will enable Professor Van Aalten to recruit a team of five full-time researchers to his laboratory in the recently established Division of Molecular Microbiology at the College of Life Sciences.