My PhD studies are focused on a specific type of mould called Aspergillus (the picture below shows Aspergillus growing in a petri dish). Most people have come across Aspergillus before in the form of bathroom mould. Unfortunately Aspergillus can also cause life threatening infections. This post will try to explain the dangerous side of Aspergillus a bit.
Aspergillus produces tiny spores. The picture below shows spores under a microscope (the small spheres are spores). Everyday you inhale hundreds of these tiny spores (which are in the air)- which do no harm if you are a healthy individual.
However, inhaling these spores is potentially harmful if your immune system isn't functioning normally (e.g. chemotherapy patients or HIV-positive people). In these individuals- the spores can cause infections. During infection, the fungus can grow through lung tissue causing significant damage. These infections are hard to treat and are often fatal.
To make matters worse- the few antifungal drugs that we have to treat Aspergillus infections are becoming increasingly ineffective due to resistance (see previous blog post on antimicrobial resistance for more info). In some countries the levels of antifungal resistance in Aspergillus are as high as 40%.
My specific research looks into the specific ways in which Aspergillus can become resistant to antifungal drugs. Interestingly, Aspergillus can develop resistance both in an agricultural setting and in a hospital setting. This is because agricultural antifungal drugs (which are used predominantly for crop protection from fungal pests) are very similar in structure to the medically used antifungal drugs. This means when a fungus becomes resistant in the environment to an agricultural antifungal drug- it is also possible that it has developed resistance to medical antifungal drugs. Patients can therefore become infected with a fungus that is already resistant to the drugs used to treat it- which is a nightmare for doctors.
Lots of research is going on to improve this situation but the scale of the problem is often underestimated- especially by the media!
For more information check out the following website: