UW-Madison scientists develop method for treating fungal infections

UW-Madison scientists have developed a new method using nylon polymers to treat fungal infections.

Worldwide, invasive fungal infections claim the lives of 1.5 million people each year, according to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. To make matters worse, fungal infections are becoming increasingly hard to treat due to rising resistance to existing treatments, which can be dangerously toxic even if they do work.

The difficulty with finding treatments for fungal infections relates to the cellular structure of fungi, which differs from other common microorganisms.

Bacteria, for example, are prokaryotic cells, while both human cells and fungal cells are eukaryotic, so there’s more overlap between the biochemistry of fungi and that of humans. That means it can be relatively difficult to target fungal infections without harming the surrounding cells.

The nylon polymer treatment could provide a way to sidestep these issues, according to Sam Gellman, a UW-Madison professor of chemistry and lead investigator for this research.

With assistance from WARF, he has applied for a patent on specially designed nylon polymers which have demonstrated antifungal effects. The polymers have some antifungal activity on their own, but work most effectively in combination with certain drugs.

Research so far has included testing for toxicity with cultured human red blood cells, to see if the agent causes them to break down. One goal, Gellman says, is to get a nontoxic treatment, and he and his colleagues have already had success with avoiding certain forms of toxicity.

He says this work could lead to better treatments for these infections down the road, though it’s still in its early stages.

Aside from improving human health, Gellman says this research could also help animals.

“This work — we wouldn’t be doing it if there weren’t a chance that it would be of use,” Gellman told WisBusiness.com. “There are some real prospects.”

This ongoing research recently got a boost, Gellman notes, as internal university funding came through in support of animal studies. These parallel mouse trials would focus on fungal infections of the lung, and the treatment would be delivered through inhalation.

“Any success there would be a major step forward,” he said.

–By Alex Moe