Friday, 30 November 2012

Newsbite: How the Cause of the US Meningitis Outbreak was Solved

For those following the recent story of the outbreak of fungal meningitis caused by contaminated injectable steroid solution, this is an interesting news article giving some perspective on how difficult it is to detect and treat Aspergillus & other fungal infections more...

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Caution! Nature's Genetic Engineers at Work

There have been many critics of the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer genetic material from on species to another as the process is viewed as potentially dangerous, changing some modified organisms in ways that were impossible by natural processes and thus generating organisms that may be harmful to the environment in some way.

However it is becoming increasingly clear that although natural mechanisms that pass genetic material from one generation to the next i.e. sexual or asexual reproduction remain by far the most common, there are natural mechanisms that pass genetic material - in some cases containing many genes - to and  from species between which sexual reproduction is not thought possible.

We have been aware of horizontal genetic transmission for many years but it had been assumed that it was rare and limited in cope - we have noticed it happening in bacteria and viruses. A recent research paper suggests that that view should be changed. Antonis Rokas, assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and research associate Jason Slot found that a large piece of DNA containing 23 genes had transferred from Aspergillus nidulans to Podospora anserina or vice versa at some point in evolutionary history millions of years ago.

Finding evidence for horizontal transfer of quite large gene clusters between eucaryotic organisms that are far more complex than bacteria & viruses is quite a surprise and suggests that this process is far more widespread than we thought even a few years ago, and changes the way we should now think of what defines a species and how genes can potentially be transferred between any living organism. This paper suggests that fungi can pass between them 'cassettes' of DNA containing many genes that can work together to allow the fungus to exploit a new advantage - in this case produce a toxin that would give it a competitive advantage when growing under certain conditions in the wild. In some ways this is similar to one workman lending his specialised tool to another so that he can carry out a task more efficiently.

This may well account for some of the versatility of ability of fungi to live on a huge range of foods and substrates, producing a massive range of metabolites.

How such substantial gene transfer happened remains something of a mystery as known mechanisms tend to provide ways to transfer much smaller pieces of DNA compared with this finding.

Perhaps then nature has been carrying out its own genetic engineering for millions of years, predating human efforts by a very long time!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Take Care When Picking Wild Mushrooms

Aspergillus is not a fungus that produces large fruiting bodies above group that most would recognise as a mushroom, but many fungi do reproduce in this way. Just as some species of Aspergillus can produce toxins under some growth conditions, so can some other species of fungus - thus some fruiting bodies (referred to as mushrooms and toadstools in many countries) are also toxic.

 Four people have died after one of the victims made soup out of a mushroom that contained deadly toxins. This unfortunate incident emphasises that it is very important that anyone collecting wild mushrooms must be familiar with what dangerous mushrooms are likely to look like & where they grow.

This US government advice page is useful and so is this UK resource but different countries may have other species of harmful mushrooms or certain types may be more common in some areas of the world - always check local information.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Ash Tree Dieback Fungal Disease - Why Now?

The news channels in the UK have recently carried several stories on the newly identified fungal disease of Ash trees caused by the fungus Chalara Fraxinea. The main thrust of the stories is that this heralds the arrival of a new fungal disease in the UK which will cause the demise of one of our most common trees in a similar way to that seen 30-40 years ago when Dutch Elm Disease reduced another of our native tree species from a huge tree that dominated our landscape to what is now generally growing as a small hedgerow bush. Incidentally this nicely illustrates the power of a fungus to change our landscape even today as Dutch Elm Disease is caused by the fungus Ophiostoma ulmi.

Dutch Elm Disease was naturally spread by an insect that was probably imported into the UK on a load of imported timber whereas the new Ash fungal pathogen seems to have arrived in the UK via a wind dispersal mechanism as infected imported stock had been destroyed, but this conclusion remains in some doubt as prior to being detected in the UK the fungus is not known to have travelled more than 20km via wind - and the UK is more than 20km distant from the continent!

Why do we suddenly get such hugely destructive invasions of plant pathogens? Again the story of Dutch Elm disease provides useful information. The fungus that causes Dutch Elm Disease is known to have been in the UK for many years prior to the death of all of our Elms. Our native strain of Ophiostoma ulmi was however  quite a mild pathogen and seemed mainly responsible for killing a few branches of an infected tree rather than killing the whole tree. It was the arrival of the highly virulent strain from North America that caused destruction on a large scale, and that arrival was caused by human intervation in the form of the international trade in timber.

Likewise Ash dieback has been caused by the arrival of a highly virulent strain of Chalara Fraxinea against which our native Ash trees have few defences. The isolation of our island has probably protected our native trees up until now but it is as yet unclear if human intervention was again the cause of the spread or if some unknown natural dispersal mechanism bridged the English Channel. Nonetheless this is an unusual situation and it will rapidly resolve as trees (the host) and pathogen (the fungus) interact  over the next few years - most probably leading to the demise of most of our Ash trees.

Pathogen and host usually exist side by side in a relatively benign 'war of attrition'. The fungus will have limited ability to attack the host and will not usually be able to kill it - otherwise the pathogen would quickly run out of hosts and die out itself! Each will slowly attack and defend from the other. It is only when neither has come into contact with the other that we get these spectacular die-off events and we regularly find that human activities are the cause.

What will happen to our Elm & Ash trees now? More than likely resistant strains of the host will grow out eventually and in time may repopulate the countryside, though there is a possibility that will not happen for many years. This is a completely natural process and once set in motion there is not much that we can do to stop it. Sadly Constables landscapes will not be the same again for many years.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Aspergillus awamori as a Beneficial Food for Chickens

It may seem odd that after regular stories are published about birds suffering from aspergillosis that we now find an article talking about using Aspergillus awamori as a food for broiler chickens in the press. The article is summarising a published research article that carried out an experiment whereby small amounts of A. awamori were fed to chickens and their weight monitored.

A. awamori is in fact in widespread use in the food industry in eastern countries such as Japan, known as koji. The strains tend to have been 'in captivity' in human hands for thousands of years (e.g. Tea fermentation) and are thought to be quite harmless to humans.

The experimenters found that the use of Aspergillus increased the amount of meat produced when the amount of food uptake by the chickens actually fell. This surprising result suggests that the fungus may help the chickens digest their food, but it is also suggested that chicken muscle tissue growth is also encouraged.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Winners of 'Funky Fungi' Art Competition Announced

Over 300 million people are acutely or chronically infected by fungi, leading to death, long term illness, blindness, psychological problems and reduced work capacity. Many recent improvements in diagnostics and treatment have not reached treating clinicians in all countries, and access to appropriate diagnostics and simple antifungal agents is far from universal. This needs to change.
LIFE ran an art competition for age 13 - 18 in the North West of England and North Wales running from late 2011 until May 2012, engaging thousands of schools throughout the area in an attempt to improve awareness of fungal diseases by the use of the creative arts

Project LIFE 2012 Theme: "Funky Fungi"

Fungi are beautiful and fascinating they are essential to our ecosystem in the carbon and nitrogen cycles, and are valuable in commerce as many industries require fungal activity eg. alcohol, bread and cheese making.

You will be familiar with  mushrooms and toadstools which are types of fungi, but the ones which cause disease are nearly invisible except with a microscope.

But some fungi can also cause human diseases. Fungal diseases are mostly hidden and diagnosis is often missed, around 300 million people worldwide are affected, in many different forms of illness, some of which are deadly.

The challenge was to design a piece of artwork using this as a theme. With more than 350 entries that met the challenge, these were judged by an independent panel to be the winners:

Overall Winner: Sophie Wills, Millom School, Cumbria

Judges comments: "Strength of message, strong story and deceptive naivety"

Second place: Erica Inglis, Stockport College (Ink and paper)
Judges comments: "Sensitivity, observation, insidious danger within the beauty. Beautiful image masks and invasive threat"

Third place: Jason Rhodes, Stockport College

Judges comments: "We are constantly reminded of danger - red figure, red immune system afloat in a world of hidden threats"

Congratulations to all 3 winners and the schools particularly Stockport College who had many strong, varied entries in the shortlist and finished with 2 in the top 3.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Bitter Tastes Initiate Our Immune System Response

It has long been suspected that we evolved to taste bitter substances and generally reject them in order to be able to identify foods that had 'gone off' after being infected with micro-organisms, but does it go further than that?

Researchers have discovered that when we eat bitter substances it can actively initiate our immune response in our upper airways, and those who taste bitterness particularly well also fight off infection of our upper respiratory tract (upper throat and  sinuses) particularly well. The infecting agents in this study were bacteria but foods spoiled by fungi are likely to have a similar bitter taste.
About 25% of us cannot taste bitterness  very well and it follows that these people may not fight off infection efficiently and thus be prone to chronic sinusitis.

Quoting from the Penn University News Report:

They found that one of the bitter taste receptors that functions in upper airway cells, known as T2R38, acts as a type of “security guard” for the upper airway by detecting molecules that a certain class of bacteria secretes.  “These molecules instruct other bacteria to form a biofilm, which helps harbor the bacteria. From previous work, we know that these biofilms spur the immune system to mount an over-exuberant inflammatory response that can lead to sinusitis symptoms.  When the T2R38 receptor detects these molecules, it activates local defensive maneuvers to increase mucus clearance and kill the invading bacteria. It’s really like modern warfare – intercept the enemies’ early communications to thwart their plans and win the battle,” Cohen said, who is also the director of the Rhinology Research Lab at Penn.
Through the cultures, the research team demonstrated that super-tasters detect very small concentrations of the offending molecules, while non-tasters and the middle-ground individuals require 100 times more of the molecule for detection.  The research team also examined the patients that the original sinus tissue samples were collected from. They found that none of the super tasters were infected with the specific type of bacteria that are detected by the T2R38 receptor, known as a gram-negative bacteria.
“Based on these findings, we believe that other bitter taste receptors in the airway perform the same “guard duty” function for early detection of attack by different types of bacteria, and we hope to translate these findings into personalized diagnostics for patients with chronic rhinosinusitis,” Cohen says.

News report at Penn University

Friday, 2 November 2012

Manchester Entrepreneur joins Rebranded Fungal Infection Trust

During the Manchester Science Festival, The Fungal Research Trust announced that Peter Folkman, a successful Manchester entrepreneur was joining the Board and The Trust was changing its name to the Fungal Infection Trust.

Peter Folkman is a graduate of Oxford University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His background is in technology and venture capital. Peter served on the Council of The University of Manchester and several Boards as a non-executive Director including Manchester Science Park, Manchester Technology Fund and University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust. He is currently Chairman of Nowgen, a centre of excellence in public engagement, education and professional training in biomedicine, primarily related to genetics.

The Fungal Infection Trust will take forward the 21-year charitable legacy of the Fungal Research Trust, with a broader remit to be more inclusive of public and health professional education and awareness of fungal diseases. The Trust was set up in 1991 and since then has distributed in excess of £3,500,000 in research grants resulting in more than 145 research publications on clinical and scientific aspects of fungal infection. It has contributed to the postgraduate training of more than 25 scientists and doctors in the UK and overseas.

The announcements by Dr Geoff Scott, Chairman, were made at the Funky Fungi exhibition held in the Manchester Science Festival showcasing art and fungi. The Project LIFE competition winners were teenagers from the North West of England and North Wales who created inspiring, fantastic art work related to fungi. The Fungal Research Trust supports the encyclopaedic Aspergillus Website at

As well as being a key resource for clinicians and researchers, the website also devotes several sections to patients and relatives to help them understand more about aspergillosis. In a recent quarter Google searches picked up the The Aspergillus Website 2,800,000 times and there are 33,930 links to the Website from other domains. The Fungal Research Trust has also supported the development of LIFE (Leading International Fungal Education) a new initiative to make the subject of fungal infection more accessible for doctors and other health professionals. LIFE is linked to a growing advocacy movement for fungal diseases which are not recognised or supported by major health agencies internationally.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Your Help Needed: Please Report all Antifungal Drug Side Effects

Side Effects of drugs are vitally important to identify and assess. Problems occur with new drugs because in testing only the new drug is taken by people assessing them for side effects. As we all know it is more usual for ill people to take more than one drug per day!

Different drugs can interact and cause new side effects so it is especially important to keep track of side effects of new drugs - and 'real' patients are the experts we need to consult for this research.

Many of those reading this blog may well take antifungal drugs, some of which are relatively new so we are especially encouraging everyone who takes antifungal drugs (old or new) to record all the side effects they experience using this new website set up by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the UK. The system has been in place for some time but recently it has been redesigned to allow & encourage use by members of the public rather than just doctors.

The general idea is that if a side effect is consistently reported by several different people and/or it occurs in combination with a particular drug then it will be flagged up by the system to pharmacists who will be able to adjust advice given to doctors and the public about the use of those drugs.

Please help us complete this vital work for everyone who has to take antifungal drugs by recording all the side effects you experience when taking antifungals on this website: NOTE: this website is for side effects experienced in the UK only.

US patients can submit adverse drug reactions here:

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