With fungal infections killing 1.5 million people each year, Monash University researchers are playing an important role as the World Health Organization recognizes this growing threat.
The world-leading Monash experts are among a small but determined group of researchers working to curb the growing impact of potentially dangerous fungal infections.
In late October, 2022, WHO published a report highlighting the first list of fungal "priority pathogens" – a catalogue of the 19 fungi that represent the greatest threat to public health.
The premise behind the publication is twofold: fungi are a significant and increasing threat to public health, and because there is little global research and development into fungi or their treatment.
Professor Ana Traven, from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, said fungi could range from benign (skin and nail infections and vaginal thrush) to the deadly (Candida, Aspergillus).
“And they have been largely ignored because deadly fungal infections predominantly target people who are immunosuppressed; they are generally not transmitted in human-to-human contact,” she said.
In 2016 a Candida auris infection closed down an ICU in the UK after three deaths, and C. auris was transmitted between patients, something that is rarely seen in fungal infection.
C. auris infections didn’t even exist before 2009 or so in humans, and it is now one of four of the WHO’s “critical priority” pathogens.
Professor Traven and her colleague, Dr Claudia Simm have set up a comprehensive research program in Australia working on C. auris, and are one of only a handful of Australian research teams working on fungal infections at all.
“There are fewer scientists working in this space, not because it is not important, it is just not high profile enough,” Dr Simm said.
According to the WHO, researchers in the fungal space receive a very small share (<1.5%) of funding aimed at finding new solutions to infectious diseases.
“And when you go to an infectious diseases conference only one in 20 presentations will be on fungal infections,” Dr Simm added. “Which is madness, because fungal pathogens are responsible for at least 13 million infections and 1.5 million deaths globally per year.”
Traditionally fungal infections have targeted severely ill patients and those with reduced function of the immune system. Populations at greatest risk of invasive fungal infections include those with cancer, HIV/AIDS, organ transplants, chronic respiratory disease, and patients in intensive care wards.
Professor Traven said climate change could also be broadening the repertoire of these infections.
“Normally the body temperature of humans is too high for fungi to grow. But it has been proposed by our colleagues that, as the ambient temperature globally increases, the capacity for fungi to survive at higher temperatures increases,” she said.
“Now these infections are breaking down mammal’s body temperature defenses.”
In April this year Professor Traven and Dr Simm published, in an American Society for Microbiology journal, one of the first Australian papers* on a potential new therapeutic approach for the drug-resistant Candida auris.
“Fungal infections are not going away,” Professor Traven said. “We are seeing new serious fungal pathogens emerging and the number of individuals susceptible to these infections is increasing, as we saw for example with mucormycosis (called “black fungus” in the media) in COVID-19 patients last year.
“There really must be more funding into how these fungi operate and how we can treat them. Maybe now that the WHO has shone a spotlight on them, there can be action.”
Published in journal: American Society for Microbiology journal
Reference Material: WHO Report
Source/Credit: Monash University
Reference Number: mcb121222_01