An experimental vaccine would be the first to combat fungi

An illustration of Candida fungi
Illustration: Shutterstock (Shutterstock)

Scientists at the University of Georgia say they have developed a vaccine that should be able to protect against a variety of dangerous fungi. In animal studies, the vaccine prevented serious infections and deaths from three types of fungi that often cause illness in people. The team now plans to start the first human trials.

Compared to viruses and bacteria, fungi are a less common source of disease. Among other reasons, our bodies are too hot for most fungi to survive comfortably, and our immune systems generally do a good job of keeping potential infections from spreading. But many experts fear that climate change causes an increase in fungal diseases. Even today, fungal infections cause serious illness, especially in people who are immunosuppressed or have health problems. As more people live with conditions that at least temporarily weaken their immune systems, such as those undergoing cancer treatment, fungal infections are expected to increase. These infections are more difficult to treat and prevent than other types, since we have very few safe antifungal medications and no approved vaccines against them.

Researchers at the University of Georgia believe they may have taken a big step forward in protecting people from these worst-case scenarios. Their experimental vaccine is intended to increase protection in immunocompromised people against three of the most common groups of fungi known to cause fatal infections in humans: Pneumocystis, Aspergillus y Candida. The vaccine is supposed to work by training the immune system to recognize a “pan-fungal” protein shared by these fungi, which should then strengthen our immunity against all three.

So far they have tested their vaccine in mice and rhesus macaques. These experiments compared the results of the vaccinated animals with those of the unvaccinated animals after both groups had their immune systems deliberately suppressed and exposed to the fungi. As expected, the animals produced antibodies against this panfungal protein. Overall, the vaccine was found to be effective in preventing invasive fungal infections and deaths. None of the vaccinated macaques exposed to the fungus Pneumocystis developed the severe infection it can cause, for example, compared to more than half of the unvaccinated group. The team results are published late last year on PNAS Nexus.

“Because it targets three different pathogens, the vaccine has the potential to be groundbreaking with respect to invasive fungal infections,” said lead author Karen Norris, a professor in the UGA School of Veterinary Medicine, in a announcement recent from college.

According to investigation Cited by the authors, about 13 million life-threatening fungal infections occur annually worldwide. A large portion of these infections are caused by these three fungi, while they are estimated to account for over 80% of fungal-related deaths. Other research by some of the same authors has estimated that fungal infections accrue $6.7 billion in direct medical costs annually in the US alone.

However, as encouraging as these early findings are, the real test is yet to come. The team is preparing to start a Phase I trial of their vaccine, which will test its safety and immune response in healthy human volunteers.

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