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Dangerous hide and seek game in the lungs

Researchers from Heidelberg have discovered the ability of mould fungi to protect themselves against the body’s immune defence system and drugs through biofilm.

Mould fungi are able to develop biofilms in the lungs to effectively protect themselves against the body’s immune defence system and against drugs. This type of hide-and-seek game has already been seen with bacteria and viruses. A group of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Frank-Michael Müller from the Centre of Children’s and Youth Medicine at the University Hospital of Heidelberg has achieved a world first with a publication of two scientific papers on the fungi’s ability to evade the body’s immune attacks.

Fungal infection – alarming complications in patients with cancer and immunodeficiencies

Biofilm with Aspergillus fumigatus hypha on bronchial epithelial cells (Photo: University Hospital of Heidelberg)
Although drugs given to immunocompromised patients are initially effective against Aspergillus fumigatus infections, they quickly lose their effect. Those affected become seriously ill with what is a potentially fatal disease. “There are no anatomical barriers to prevent the fungi from invading the lung tissue,” said Prof. Dr. Frank-Michael Müller, senior physician of paediatric pneumology at the Centre of Children’s and Youth Medicine in Heidelberg. For example, Aspergillus fumigatus infections can affect tumour patients who are given drugs to suppress their immune system prior to chemotherapy or stem cell transplantation. Laboratory experiments with human lung cells have now shown that Aspergillus fumigatus fungi form biofilms that enable infections to persist. The biofilms resemble a layer of mucus and consist mainly of water and nutrients, chiefly sugar and proteins. “We have used cell cultures for our experiments. Whether the formation of biofilms is actually the reason for the inefficiency of drugs in immunocompromised or cancer patients needs to be substantiated in further investigations,” said Professor Müller. The scientists plan to use lung tissue biopsies that have been taken during surgery. If they are able to substantiate their suspicions, then the scientists’ observations could have implications for the treatment of A. fumigatus colonisation in immunocompromised patients. “Our findings indicate that it may be necessary to administer antifungal drugs a lot sooner or to develop drugs that prevent biofilm formation,” said Professor Müller.

Aspergillus fumigatus – usually harmless, but sometimes life-threatening

Aspergillus fumigatus is one of the most common fungi and is found in the ice of the Antarctic as well as in the sand of the Sahara. It is usually harmless for healthy people. “Every one of us breathes in fungal spores every day and the human immune system is normally able to quickly eliminate the fungus,” said Professor Müller explaining that the fungus can lead to asthma in some people, but also, although only rarely, to an aspergilloma, or fungus ball, that grows in the lung or in the sinuses.

The fungus becomes life threatening for immunocompromised patients, including cancer patients, HIV sufferers and patients with innate immunodeficiencies. Patients with chronic lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis also suffer from fungus infections because the viscous mucus in the bronchia can only be removed with difficulty and hence is an excellent breeding ground for pathogens. In Germany, about 2,500 immunocompromised people die from Aspergillus fumigatus infections every year.

Source: University Hospital of Heidelberg press release - 8 Oct. 2008
Further information:
Prof. Dr. med. F.-M. Müller
Centre of Children's and Youth Medicine III
Paediatric Pneumology, Allergology, Cystic Vibrosis & spec. Infectiology
Im Neuenheimer Feld 430
69120 Heidelberg
Tel.: +49 (0)6221-56 8345
Fax: +49 (0)6221-56 33853
E-mail: frank-michael_Mueller@med.uni-heidelberg.de


Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/dangerous-hide-and-seek-game-in-the-lungs