Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Image post 3: dangerous clumps of fungus

While most posts from The Mix feature a science story, we have also begun sharing images coming out of UAB research. Below is a brief description of what we are looking at and how related work may help to diagnose and treat fungal infections.

Here is a scanning electron microscope image of the fungus called Aspergillus. It's in the process of germinating, or emerging from round spores (at the center) to begin growing. The fungus has sprouted long, branching filaments called hyphae.

Most people breathe in Aspergillus spores daily without incident, but those with lung diseases or weakened immune systems can contract Aspergillosis, symptoms of which range from allergic reactions to severe lung infections. The fungus is a major player in some forms of allergic asthma, as clumps of hard-to-remove hyphae build up in the lungs.

According to the CDC, fungal infections pose an increasing threat to public health because of the growing number of people with weakened immune systems, including AIDS, cancer and transplant patients. In addition, treatment-resistant fungal infections have emerged as a growing problem in hospitals. Global warming may be contributing to an increase in infections, as fungi thrive in warm, moist conditions. Please see the CDC fungal page for more.

Current treatments are largely incapable of reducing morbidity and mortality in Aspergillosis, said John Kearney, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Microbiology within the UAB School of Medicine. He and his team are developing a new kind of vaccine that could provide protection against invasive Aspergillosis. Bacteria elicit a stronger human immune response than fungi but contain some of the same proteins (e.g. chitin). Based on these common building blocks, it may be possible to develop a vaccine where bacterial protein vaccine ingredients are used to activate immune cells that also target a fungus and remove it from the body.

This image was made by Dr. Jeffrey Sides from the Kearney laboratory at UAB using an instrument made available by the UAB School of Engineering.

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