Hospital infections: Stepping up the fight

Photo above: Prof Wang, seen here in his laboratory on Friday, won this year's President's Science Award for his work on the Candida albicans fungus, which has been growing increasingly resistant to drugs over the years and is infecting more patients. The Candida albicans fungus lives harmlessly on many people's skin and in their gut, but the minute it touches blood it turns deadly.

SINGAPORE - Its round, benign cells lengthen in the bloodstream, allowing the fungus to burrow into any organ and take hold there, often killing its victim in the process.

It is as lethal and as hard to treat as bacterial infections such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), and is the culprit behind many hospital-acquired infections, said Professor Wang Yue, an expert on the fungus.

It kills up to 45 per cent of its victims - almost one in two.

"It's growing more and more resistant to treatments and there's urgent need to do something for the patients," he said.

Prof Wang is the first in the world to uncover how the deadly transformation in the fungus takes place, paving the way towards slashing hospital-acquired infections and resulting deaths.

The research director at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) won this year's President's Science Award for his work on the fungus over the past 15 years.

"Drug resistance has rendered many of our best antibiotics obsolete. The great challenge to medical science is to invent new ammunition with which to fight back," he said. "I hope my work may lead to the development of new diagnostics or therapies for patients."

Prof Wang has been making headway.

He and his team at IMCB have identified a "master-regulator" gene, which turns on the cellular machines responsible for the transformation of the Candida albicans fungus into a deadly form in the bloodstream; as well as the molecules in human blood which start the chain reaction.

They have also identified a key virulence gene that is activated only when the fungus enters the patient's tissues, allowing it to defeat the body's defences.

It is by understanding how the fungus works that researchers can learn how to get around its defences.

The importance of the team's work has been highlighted by a leading researcher in the field, Dr Peter Sudbery of Britain's University of Sheffield, who stressed the need for awareness of the cellular processes necessary to transform the fungus into its infectious state.

The source of pesky vaginal and gut infections, Candida albicans has been growing increasingly resistant to drugs over the years, and is infecting more patients, particularly those with weakened immune systems, such as people in intensive care.

So Prof Wang is working with the National University Hospital and a diagnostics company to look at better ways to treat such infections, as well as producing kits that can detect the infection in patients earlier and faster.

Current diagnostic techniques used by hospitals take several days to uncover what type of hospital-acquired infection a patient has, he explained.

But he hopes in a few years to develop kits that can do this in a day or even hours, and pinpoint such infections earlier.

He is also studying the best possible anti-fungal agents that can be used to tackle the condition.

Commenting on Prof Wang's work, IMCB executive director Hong Wanjin said: "These breakthrough developments will allow him to design novel diagnostic and therapeutic strategies to monitor and treat bacteria and fungi infections."

ailien@sph.com.sg


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