09:28am Monday 18 December 2017

Monash researchers unlock key to switching off deadly hospital-borne infection

Drs Traven and Beilharz

Drs Traven and Beilharz

More fatal than MRSA, Candida albicans is usually a harmless fungus that lives on the skin and in the gastroinestinal tract of many people, but can develop into a fatal infection in vulnerable individuals.

Up to 56 per cent of patients infected with Candida in the ICU die in Australia within seven days of the infection taking hold, due lack of appropriate diagnostics and treatment options. Published this week in PLoS Genetics, Monash researchers have shed light on the genetic process by which Candida albicans forms a biofilm that infects medical grade plastics, which is why they are so deadly in the hospital setting.

These biofilms are virtually drug and immune resistant and allow the fungus to infect the (already very sick) patient’s blood stream. The research, by Dr Ana Traven and Dr Traude Beilharz, provides a new chink in the armour that allows Candida albicans to form these biofilms, providing unexpected insight into these deadly infections.

The researchers discovered that when particular genes are switched off, the regulation of biofilm extracellular matrix is perturbed. The matrix substance is the glue that holds the biofilm together and protects it from insults, and it is this matrix substance that renders biofilms drug resistant.

Understanding how Candida regulates its formation could open the way for the development of drugs that can break down these fungal biofilms. The discovery came about through an alliance between the two colleagues – whose research specialities (host/pathogen research and systems biology) rarely interact. According to Dr Traven, the colleagues “literally met because we are in the same corridor. We have different skill sets but this is how contemporary research works now, with experts in different fields working together to solve big problems,” she said.

According to Professor John Carroll, the pairing of Drs Traven and Beilharz in the same corridor was no coincidence. Monash’s new Biomedicine Discovery Institute has been designed to foster interdisciplinary research.

“We no longer have researchers working in isolation or in discipline-focussed silos. Now we have large open labs with biochemists, developmental biologists, computational researchers and microbiologists (for example) all working on complex problems in the same space. The simple idea is that putting three people together with different backgrounds will lead to a much smarter solution than three with the same background. This approach is leading to great new ideas all over the Institute.”

According to Dr Traven, the whole of the “Monash infrastructure has been developed to foster interdisciplinary research to target important human health problems – modern research is about the outcomes we want to achieve not so much the disciplines that we work in,” she said.

Monash University.


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