Why we need an international effort to study fungal infections

Scientists working in a laboratory

Though often overlooked, fungi can pose a serious threat to human health. Tackling dangerous new species and drug resistance requires a global research effort.

All of us suffer fungal infections at some point in our lives.

The vast majority of fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot, dandruff or thrush, are non-life threatening, yet all are difficult to treat, and available therapies are few.

Most people are not aware that fungi also cause life-threatening, invasive infections.

Fungal infections can be fatal

Frighteningly, fungal infections kill as many individuals as tuberculosis, and four times as many individuals as malaria every year. These serious fungal infections mostly occur in people whose immune functions are compromised, such as those:

  • suffering from HIV infection
  • undergoing transplantation
  • undergoing treatment for cancer.

Fungi can also cause serious complications in people suffering from other diseases, such as:

  • chronic lung disorders
  • diabetes.

In fact, we have only recently realised that co-infections with fungi often have serious consequences for people suffering from severe influenza or COVID-19.

Millions are affected by fungal-related allergies and asthma, while fungal eye infections cause blindness in hundreds of thousands of people every year. New data suggest that fungi are involved in:

  • the severity of some cancers
  • inflammatory bowel diseases
  • even food allergies.

International expertise

Our group at the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology (MRC CMM) at the University of Exeter, is one of the largest groups of medical mycologists in the world. Mycology is the study of fungi. And medical mycology is the study of those infections caused by pathogenic fungi.

We are addressing the need for an international research effort in medical mycology through our research:

More researchers required

Historically, serious fungal infections have been largely considered diseases of the diseased and consequently, fungi have been neglected as an important pathogen group.

The lack of awareness of the enormous impact of fungi on human health has led to a critical shortage of basic scientists and clinicians in our field. This is reflected in funding from the major UK and US funding agencies, where less than 3% of infectious disease budgets are spent on medical mycology.

Notably, the dearth of people working in this field has drastically constrained our scientific progress. Indeed, compared to other pathogens, our ability to diagnose and treat fungal infections is incredibly restricted.

Also, there is no vaccine against any fungal pathogen in current clinical use.

Global health threats

Most worrying is the rise and rapid spread of antifungal resistance to the very limited arsenal of antifungal drugs. This has already led to untreatable fungal infections, resulting in death in nearly all cases.

Global warming poses an additional threat.

High temperatures are leading to the emergence of frightening new fungal diseases, as the ability of several fungi to cause infection is induced at higher temperatures.

One very real example is the multi-drug resistant Candida auris, a fungal pathogen largely acquired in hospital settings. It was only discovered a decade ago but has already spread worldwide.

The road to tackling fungal infections

So, what are we to do to address the issue of fungal infections and their drug resistance?

Our group focus efforts on three fronts:

  1. Firstly, we focus our research efforts directly towards generating and using knowledge to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of fungal infections.
  2. Secondly, we increase global capacity in medical mycology by training the next generation of skilled scientists and clinicians.
  3. Finally, we help raise public awareness of the impact and importance of fungi on human health and wellbeing.

We hope that through our efforts, and those of our colleagues, we are starting to make some inroads in our ability to tackle these devastating diseases. But the more people we can attract to this field, and the more global our efforts can be, the better.

Further information

To learn more, please visit:

Top image:  Credit: CMM

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