University of Exeter: Bid to discover how immune systems recognise fungal invaders

Fungal infections kill an estimated 1.6 million people a year worldwide, but key aspects of the immune response are still unknown.

Professor Neil Gow and Professor Alistair Brown, of the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology (MRC CMM) at the University of Exeter, have secured a £1.6 million Wellcome Investigator Award to find out how immune receptors detect specific chemical signatures on fungal cells.

“I am delighted that this award has been granted to myself and Al Brown at the MRC CMM, and to our collaborator in fungal cell wall chemistry, Nikolay Nifantiev, based in Moscow,” Professor Gow said.

“In this programme, we are seeking to reveal the very first events that ignite the human immune system’s ability to recognise a fungal invader.

“Our programme promises not only to answer fundamental questions in fungal immunology, but also paves the way for the development of novel diagnostic biosensors and treatment options.”

Professor Brown said: “Just as the immune system recognises the ‘spike protein’ of Covid-19, we aim to define the precise chemical composition of the targets in fungal cell walls that trigger immune responses.

“We will also determine how the fungus disguises these immune targets to avoid recognition by the immune system.”

The Exeter research team have renowned expertise in research on the fungus Candida, which kills about 250,000 people a year and causes more than 100 million thrush infections.

The new programme will draw on expertise in synthetic carbohydrate chemistry, fungal physiology, genetics, genomics and immunology.

“By defining the chemical signatures that trigger immunity, and how the fungus disguises and regulates these chemical signatures to avoid immune capture, we will uncover the origins and dynamics of fungal immune responses,” Professor Gow said.

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