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Dr Nerissa Hannink, Media Office, University of Melbourne, Mob: 0430 588 055,
Email: nhannink@unimelb.edu.au

A University of Melbourne academic has been awarded US$150,000 in funding to help researchers in Asia and Africa better understand how fungi cause disease. Despite being one of the most significant health problems in many emerging countries, not enough is known about medically important fungi.

Dr Alex Andrianopoulos, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research scholar in the Department of Genetics has been awarded the funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to develop and run a seven-day advanced techniques workshop on the genetic analysis of fungal diseases. The course will run in Thailand, with scientists coming from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, India, Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Brazil. The workshop is provided for graduate students, postdoctoral associates and principal investigators. Follow up visits will also be incorporated for continued support.

“In the West, we usually associate fungi disease with tinea and dandruff. But in emerging nations, it’s a massive health issue with two species of fungi in the top three infections of AIDS patients in South East Asia. Fungal infections can also affect travelers,” says Dr Andrianopoulos.

Fungal infections are particularly hard to treat as their biology is similar to that of cells in the human body- making it difficult to find drug targets which only affect the fungus. Once a fungal infection is established, most patients with an impaired immune system require continued prophylactic treatment for life.

“One of the biggest problems with fungal research in Asia and other regions in the world is a skills gap in genetically manipulating these organisms, which is needed to understand their biology and the genetics behind their ability to cause disease. In less resourced labs, the best way to bring researchers up to speed on these techniques is by demonstration, so I am working on filling this gap with advanced techniques workshops and lectures.”

“My hope is that these workshops will have a big impact on fungal research in the region, particularly as participants will meet a number of the top researchers in the field from Australia, USA and the UK who will act as instructors. It may also encourage researchers in this region to attend conferences to hear about the latest advances and establish networks.”

The species of particular interest in Asia and Africa are Penicillium marneffei and Cryptococcus neoformans which contribute major health issues for AIDS patients and other immunocompromised individuals. Candida albicans (the species that causes thrush) is also a substantial problem in the region, as it is worldwide.

Penicillium marneffei is unique because other members of the Penicillium group of fungi do not cause disease (a number of species in the Penicillum group are medically and biotechnologically important for the production of the antibiotic Penicillin and for blue cheeses such as roquefort), Part of the reason why Penicillium marneffei may be able to cause disease is that when it enters the human body, which is 370C, it can take on a different form and become pathogenic. None of the other Penicillium species has this capacity.