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Potent new antifungal agent discovered in marine animal microbiome

By Donna Lu

Aspergillus fumigatus fungus can cause lung infections in humans

Stephanie Rossow / SCIENTIFIC PHOTO LIBRARY

A new antifungal compound has been found in the microbiome of a marine animal that is effective even against multi-resistant fungi.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world are affected by fungal infections every year. “They’re especially a problem for people whose immune systems are suppressed,” says David Andes of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This includes people being treated for cancer, organ transplant recipients, and premature babies.

The new compound may help because it is effective against many fungal pathogens that infect humans, including Aspergillus fumigatus and Candida auris.

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Andes and his colleagues found the compound – a molecule they called Turbinmicin – in Micromonospora bacteria that live in sea splashes that are filter feeders. They made the discovery by studying bacteria that they had isolated from a variety of marine animals. The team looked for bacteria with promising chemical fingerprints and found that Turbinmicin was targeting a fungal protein called Sec14p, which no other antifungal agent is targeting.

Turbinmicin’s efficacy against C. auris is promising, as the contagious fungus appears to have developed resistance to almost all other currently available antifungal drugs.

“It spreads from patient to patient and from healthcare to patients, so we get outbreaks,” Andes says.

Many antimicrobial drugs stem from discoveries made by studying bacteria on land, but less research has been done on ocean bacteria, says Tim Bugni, also at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There is an immense amount of bacterial diversity there that has never been explored for drug discovery.”

One of the challenges in developing antifungal drugs is potential toxicity due to similarities between fungi and human cells. Both fungi and humans are eukaryotes – organisms with complex cells that contain a nucleus and organelles bound by membranes.

“It’s hard to kill them without hurting us,” Andes says. So far, however, “we have not seen any significant toxicity signal,” he says.

The team will conduct safety studies and plan to develop the compound for clinical use.

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126 / science.abd6919

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