Fortunately, relatively few types of fungi cause infection. Nevertheless, fungi are a common cause of irritating infections such as “thrush”. Furthermore, in vulnerable individuals, whose immune systems have been severely compromised, fungi can cause dangerous infections of the bloodstream and internal organs.
The first challenge for our immune system is to recognise threatening fungi as “foreign” and distinguish them from “self”, because if our immune system attacks our own tissues this can cause autoimmune diseases (such as arthritis).
The second challenge our immune system faces is to clear the fungus from the infection site. This is achieved partly by immune cells engulfing the fungal cells and killing them using an armoury of anti-fungal mechanisms.
The third challenge is to turn OFF the immune response (in other words, dampen the inflammation) once the infection has been resolved. This is important because an overactive immune response can be damaging in itself.
The fourth challenge is for our immune system to “remember” a fungus that has infected us so that a strong attack can be mounted the next time we are infected.
Our researchers are studying each of these challenges – how our immune cells recognise and clear fungal infection, and then calm the inflammation down while retaining long-term immunity against a subsequent infection. We are also using this knowledge to develop better diagnostic tools and therapeutic treatments to combat fungal infection.
Alastair Brown (text)
Tina Bedekovic (central background film credit)