ETSU researcher receives $422,000 grant to study treatment, prevention of fungal infection


JOHNSON CITY (September 5, 2014) – At best, a yeast infection is uncomfortable. At worst, it is deadly.

Now, Dr. Mike Kruppa, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and member of the recently established Center for Inflammation, Infectious Disease and Immunity at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine, is working to find ways to prevent such infections.

“Nearly 99.9 percent of women will have a yeast infection in their lifetime,” Kruppa said. “Most of the time women get it, they tend to be healthy but something is just a little off in the body.”

Perhaps more concerning though, is the danger such infections post to individuals who are already very sick. Since critically ill patients often have a weakened immune system, they are susceptible to a secondary infection caused by the fungus Candida albicans, Kruppa explained.

“When you are taking antibiotics, you kill both the good and bad bacteria in your body,” he said. “That’s when the opportunists, like Candida albicans, are going to try to move in. That secondary (yeast) infection can be harder to treat than a bacterial infection, and in a really sick patient, can prove deadly.”

Kruppa recently received approximately $422,000 in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research over the next three years to better understand the interplay between Candida albicans and the normal flora in a human being’s ecosystem.

“If we can understand how they are talking to each other, we can potentially prevent the imbalance that leads to the infection,” Kruppa said. “You want to come up with ways to suppress the growth of fungi.”

Kruppa will examine several genes of Candida albicans that have been identified to play a role in the communication of the yeast fungus with various bacteria. His aim, he said, is to essentially “short circuit” the communication pathways between the fungus and bacteria to prevent Candida albicans from transitioning from a yeast form to a filamentous form.

“There are mutants of Candida locked in yeast form and mutants of it locked in filamentous form. If you can lock it in either phase, it’s not really infectious,” Kruppa explained. “So what is really important is stopping its ability to undergo that transition because that is when it causes infection.”

Kruppa is hopeful his research will identify novel compounds that could result in the creation of better drugs to treat yeast infections, or in some cases, prevent them altogether.

“The breakthroughs we see with Candida could then be applied to other fungi,” Kruppa said. “The real deal here is we have to come up with innovative ways of inhibiting organisms and maintaining a balance of our natural flora.”

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