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Drug-resistant fungus a 'public health emergency'

Newswise Apr 15, 2019

A drug-resistant fungus known as Candida auris has spread to hospitals around the globe, including in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.

Guillaume Lambert, a professor in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell University, studies the impacts of antibiotics on bacteria. He says there have been few resources dedicated to new antifungal drugs, but that this recent outbreak of C. auris may shift his lab’s focus to better understanding the fungus. Lambert says:

Finding a way to treat pathogens that are drug resistant is one of the most important public health challenges we're facing today. Many strains of bacteria that were easy to treat in the past are now resistant to most first-line antibiotics, and this is a huge problem in and of itself, but what's alarming is that they are also resistant to all newly discovered antibiotics as well. That means developing new antibiotics has not been a priority for drug companies over the past decade because superbugs are often already resistant to newly developed antibiotics.

But what's interesting about the Candida auris pathogen is that it is a type of fungus, and not a bacteria. Fungal infections are typically non-lethal and, because of this, there has historically been very few resources invested in finding new antifungal drugs. This means that the arsenal of drugs that can treat drug-resistant C. auris infections is very limited.

However, C. auris mainly affects patients that are already immunocompromised, meaning that most people with a healthy immune system are naturally able to combat these types of fungal infections. But this could be a huge problem down the line if this fungus continues to spread to other hospitals, where many patients already have a weakened immune system.

My lab attempts to directly measure the impact of antibiotics on bacteria. We do this by watching them under a microscope for hundreds of generations and monitoring the emergence of tolerance in real-time. Because we can track whole populations for a very long time, we can directly identify when and where antibiotic resistance occurs, and how it spreads through a population. While my lab hasn't worked with C. auris or other fungi directly, our experimental approach is very versatile and could easily be adapted to study fungi instead of bacteria. This recent outbreak may be a great opportunity for us to shift our efforts to study C. auris and help tackle this developing public health emergency.

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