TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY Texas A&M University biologist Xiaorong Lin draws from ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" to explain the mission of her research on fungal pathogens: "If you want to win the battle," she says, "you have to know not only yourself, but also the enemy."
On the public relations front, it's a deceptive foe. Fungi have beneficial uses and are responsible for many of life's edible conveniences, including mushrooms, bread, beer and wine. Also, most people's experience with fungal infections is superficial, ranging from dandruff to athlete's foot. But these facts mask a troubling one, says Lin, an assistant professor in the Texas A&M Department of Biology: The fungal pathogen she studies, Cryptococcus neoformans, is lethal, causing nearly 625,000 deaths a year worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lin and her research group are working to glean basic details about C. neoformans, along with one other fungal pathogen, Aspergillus fumigatus, so that life-saving treatments could one day be possible. Lin recently received a boost as one of 10 national recipients of a prestigious award that brings with it $500,000 in research funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
"Even those superficial infections on the skin are hard to cure," Lin says. "Now imagine if the fungus is growing inside a human body. The problem is, we don't have good drugs to target fungal infections. You want a drug that's going to kill those pathogens specifically but isn't toxic to the host cells. That's one of the areas we are working on."
Lin says it's tricky to target fungi inside the human body without harming the host cell because fungi, in terms of evolutionary distance at the cellular level, are more closely related to humans than they are to plants. Unlike with bacteria, which are more different than humans, targeting fungi without inflicting more severe side effects poses a greater challenge, Lin notes.
"I believe that, in general, infectious diseases are one of the most important things we need to study as a human race, because along with nuclear war, they pose the greatest threat to our existence," Lin says. "Fungal infections are just one type of infectious disease, but they are understudied, and the research is under-funded."