Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Energy Efficient Homes Are Also Asthma Causing Homes

The UK government have for some time been supporting (by deed and funding) the construction and renovation of our homes so that they meet very strict energy efficiency requirements. As a direct consequence insulation has been lavishly funded while there has been little or no emphasis on introducing fresh air into properties i.e. via ventilation - presumably because ventilation can cause heat loss and thus lead to higher energy consumption.
Unfortunately this one-eyed thinking has led to a housing stock that has insufficient ventilation in many cases, leading to the accumulation of moisture and other gases e.g. carbon dioxide. The UK based Institute for Specialist Surveyors and Engineers has for some years now been advocating the introduction of heat-saving mechanical ventilation to help improve ventilation while minimising costs to energy efficiency.


A new paper (summarised here in the Sunday Times) has looked at asthma rates in a range of energy efficient housing and concludes that higher rates of asthma correlates with higher energy efficiency rating - a clear indication that greater consideration needs to be given by the UK government to supporting the installation of ventilation alongside insulation rather than insulation alone.



The ISSE alongside the Institute of Buildings and Health are to take this up with government ministers and senior officials of the UK construction Industry in the very near future.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Allergy to Christmas Tree's Is Not Only Caused By Moulds


Some years ago and more recently in the media it has been noted that small studies on mould found on live Christmas tree's brought into the home for the festive period suggest that the amount of moulds on the tree slowly increased over the days it spends in your home. We recommended at the time that as a result it would be best if people who are sensitive to moulds remove these trees after 7 - 10 days before the amount of mould growing on the trees built up too much.

This year we have noticed a paper documenting a much larger study from 1970 on this subject - quoting the summary below:

A history of respiratory or other allergic symptoms during the Christmas season is occasionally obtained from allergic patients and can be related to exposure to conifers at home or in school.   
Incidence and mechanism of production of these symptoms were studied. Of 1657 allergic patients, respiratory and skin allergies to conifers occurred in 7%. This seasonal syndrome includes sneezing, wheezing and transitory skin rashes. The majority of patients develop their disease within 24 hours, but 15% experience symptoms after several days delay. 
Mould and pollen studies were carried out in 10 test sites before, during and after tree placement in the home. Scrapings from pine and spruce bark yielded Urge numbers of Penicillium, Epicoccum and Alternaria, but these failed to become airborne. No significant alteration was discovered in the airborne fungi in houses when trees were present. Pollen studies showed release into air of weed, grass and tree pollens while Christmas trees were in the house. Oleoresins of the tree balsam are thought to be the most likely cause of the symptoms designated as Christmas tree allergy.
It seems therefore that allergies caused by Christmas trees may also be caused by several other factors other than moulds, though it remains important to be aware of moulds especially when moving or otherwise disturbing the trees

Friday, 19 December 2014

Turn Plastics into Food - Using Fungi!


Microbiologists and two designers have come up with a device dubbed the Fungi Mutarium, which is capable of turning biodegradable plastic into -- hold your breath -- edible mushrooms!

The Fungi Mutarium is the brainchild of Livin, an Austrian design studio, and Utrecht University, which aimed to create a device that could break down man-made trash and at the same time grow tasty edibles.

The experiment is a prototype that deploys fungi to break down plastic and grow edible fungal biomass or mushrooms. The device uses cups that are made of agar, which is an algae-based gelatin. The cups hold the fungus, which is used to digest the plastic which, in turn, has been sterilized by dousing it in UV light. Once the plastic has been digested, the agar cups and the content inside it become digestible. The process usually takes several months for the fungi to decompose all the plastic.

 With the device, the team aimed to create a single solution that would address a host of issues ranging from pollution to food waste. "We were both really inspired about the idea that something digests plastic but then still creates edible biomass,"said Katharina Unger, who is one of the designers.

 Unger also reveals that the harvested pods have a mild taste; the fungi that is used is from the root of two of the most popular mushrooms around: oyster and split gill. "It starts off being very neutral, but it can also get a bit nutty and spicy in taste. It really depends on the strain, actually," the research found. However, the team asserts that the "neutral" taste is what makes the pods versatile in nature.

The Fungi Mutarium faces a few hurdles before it can make its way to consumers. A major drawback is that it takes several months for the plastic to break down. The product is still in its research phase and while the Fungi Mutarium has mass usage potential, it seems there is room for improvement. Unger, however, is optimistic. "We know that there's potential to speed up this process simply by optimizing the processes around it: temperature, humidity, the perfect microclimate for this fungi to colonize the plastic material," says Unger. The team is currently looking for more funding so that they can continue to work on improving the Fungi Mutarium.

Original article by Anu Passary

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Environmentally Friendly Nanotechnology using Fungi

Nanotechnology is a rapidly developing science and a number of methods are now available for producing nanoparticles. However, some of these methods employ high energy requirements, low material conversions and the use of hazardous chemicals. Hence, there is a growing need to develop eco-friendly nanoparticle synthesis methods.
Biosynthetic methods such as those that employ plant extracts or microorganisms have emerged as viable alternatives to physical and chemical synthetic procedures.




Fungi (including Aspergillus) are emerging as a prime candidate to produce nanoparticles in a far less environmentally damaging ways. This development is great news as nanotechnology is already proving to be of great use in advancing medical techniques for diagnosis and treatment, allowing for efficient drug delivery in places that have always been difficult to reach - a simple topical application of nano-drug on the skin for example is effective at getting the drug travelling deep through tissue to its target - in the past chemical solvents have had to be used for similar purposes and patients have had to tolerate toxic side effects.

Original article by Stuart Milne

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Chocolate Frosty Pod Rot = World Shortage of Chocolate!

Originally reported by Jennifer Frazer in the Scientific American Journal:
For a long time frosty pod rot was relatively confined to Colombia, Ecuador, and western Venezuela in northwest South America. Since the 1950s, it has spread throughout South and Central America, reaching Panama in 1956, Costa Rica in 1978, Nicaragua in 1980, Peru  in 1988, Honduras in 1997, Guatemala in 2002, Belize in 2004, and Mexico in 2005. It can cause growers to abandon entire cacao plantations, as losses in infected groves can near 100%
Frosty pod rot, along with its close relative witch’s broom of cacao, together have devastated cacao-farming regions in these countries, and “are responsible for the plummet in tropical American cocoa production,” according to a 2005 article in Mycologia. That sounds bad. At least one scientist, according to the authors of the Mycologia article, believes that M. roreri is “still in an invasive phase … and is poised to devastate already crippled production in Bolivia and Brazil, once it arrives in those countries.” Apparently, that is still true in 2013, as the poster that I discovered this pathogen on stated that frosty pod rot is still a “serious threat” to cacao plantations in Bolivia and Brazil, and even West Africa.

Changes in the climate of the areas that grow the world's supplies of chocolate (probably caused by Global Warming) are hitting the crop production and on top of that bad news the stress caused by dryer conditions and changes to the local flora & fauna are stimulating the growth of diseases of the cocao plant, particularly the fungal disease Frosty Pod Rot and other fungal infections.

This provides further evidence of the direct impact fungal diseases have on world economies - and of course to our enjoyment of the crops affected. Shortage of cocao pods will drive the price of chocolate up even further.

A further consequence of this fungal disease is that producers will eventually abandon old, infected growing areas and clear more patches of rainforest on which to grow more. Naturally the destruction of the rainforest will eventually have an impact of global warming! Are we getting into a never ending cycle of destruction??

Monday, 8 December 2014

Welcome Research Funding: Change of Approach


Refreshing our funding framework
Jeremy Farrar has announced a refreshed funding framework. The most significant changes include a clearer distinction between strategic and responsive funding, a major new scheme for collaborative research by teams, seed funding to support the generation of new ideas, more opportunities for the research leaders of the future and the merging of our New Investigator and Senior Investigator Awards.

Register for our webinar
, which will outline what the key changes mean in the context of our science portfolio, on 12 December at 11.00 GMT. This webinar will be of interest to researchers working in biomedical science and public health who are based in the UK, Republic of Ireland or in low- and middle-income countries. Find out more.

Damp Causes Mould Problems and Fire Hazard!


Reported during particularly wet weather in Montana, USA by Emily Glunk, MSU Extension Forage Specialist:

Following the large amounts of rain received throughout Montana in recent days, MSU Extension has received reports of heating and molding of hay bales that have been stacked and stored outside. Problems following heating and water damage of hay include spontaneous hay fires; quality loss of rained-on hay, especially if it continues to sit in water; and molding.
Spontaneous hay fires usually occur within six weeks of baling, however when external moisture such as heavy rain is added, issues can arise outside of that timeframe. Increases in bale moisture increase microbial activity, with heat as a by-product. It is typical to see temperatures peaking 3 to 7 days post-rainfall, but should return to normal by 60 days. This will depend on factors such as relative humidity, bale density, and amount of rainfall received. The longer it takes for the bale temperature to return to normal, the more likely for a fire or significant damage will occur to the hay.
Beyond possible spontaneous combustion, there are other quality losses associated with rained-on hay, especially hay that continues to sit in water. When hay begins to heat due to additional moisture, some of the proteins become unavailable for digestion due to binding with fiber. Unfortunately, this will still show up as crude protein on a standard lab test, and so may not exactly represent the amount of protein available to the animal.
Another well-known effect of rained-on hay is molding. Mold, and especially the mycotoxins that some molds produce, can be harmful to animals and humans alike. Horses are the most susceptible, with ingestion of moldy hay potentially resulting in respiratory and digestive issues. Ruminants aren’t as sensitive to moldy hay, but can experience negative effects such as abortions or aspergillosis. Additionally, there is a condition known as “farmer’s lung” that can occur in humans due to fungus growing in lung tissue after fungal spores have been inhaled.
MSU Extension forage specialist Emily Glunk has prepared an information sheet to answer questions and mitigate damage. Visit www.msuextension.org for more information.
In addition, MSU Extension plant pathologist Mary Burrows has prepared an Ag Alert for those with concerns about un-harvested winter wheat, spring wheat and barley that may be susceptible to grain sprouting in the head due to the large quantities of rain. Resources are available through MSU Extension at www.msuextension.org.


Tuesday, 2 December 2014

World AIDS Day: Global Action Fund for Fungal Infections requests WHO includes Itraconazole on EML

Yesterday (Dec 1st) was World AIDS Day and the pioneering health charity GAFFI  lobbied the WHO to include Itraconazole on the Essential Medicines List (EML), this would help hundreds of thousands of AIDS and HIV positive patients worldwide.
GAFFI’s application to  the WHO, was in collaboration with the International Foundation for Dermatology and pinpointed key fungal diseases with AIDS, for which itraconazole is crucial.
Itraconazole is used for the treatment of many fungal infections and is ~70% effective for fluconazole - resistant oral thrush, and is the treatment of choice for eosinophilic folliculitis, a debilitating, itchy rash associated with HIV infection.
Also Patients with Talaromyces marneffei infection (previously called penicilliosis) and which is common in SE Asia, also respond really well to itraconazole, as do those with coccidioidomycosis and paracoccidioidomycosis in the Americas.
Numerous skin fungal infections in adults and children with HIV infection are treated with the drug, griseofulvin, which remains on the EML- but is often ineffective compared to itraconazole.
Itraconazole
Itraconazole tablets

Dr David Denning, President of GAFFI and Professor of Infectious Disease in Global Health at The University of Manchester explained: “Every two years WHO calls for revision to the EML, and the deadline is today - World AIDS Day (December 1st). It is remarkable that such a workhorse antifungal such as itraconazole, which has been available since 1991, has not been included on the EML previously. Registered in most countries, itraconazole will provide the first effective oral antifungal for mould infections and endemic mycoses such as histoplasmosis.”

Professor Rod Hay of the International Foundation for Dermatology stated: “Itraconazole is a highly effective oral antifungal for many skin, hair and nail fungal infections. These are more problematic in HIV infected people, and so the inclusion of itraconazole on the EML will benefit huge numbers of adults and children with these infections."
The availability and cost of itraconazole in most countries is shown here and demonstrates the gaps in access to antifungal treatments. Itraconazole is available and approved in most countries, but not all, notably Senegal, Algeria, Afghanistan, Barbados, and Eritrea. It is registered in Dominican Republic, Iraq, Nepal and Ukraine, but not available.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Fungal Internet - Millions of Years Old

Hidden under your feet is an information superhighway that allows plants to communicate and help each other out. It’s made of fungi!


The BBC have released an article summarising and putting into context a series of observations made about the ability many plants have to form intimate relationships with fungi growing around their roots.

Mycorrhiza have been known for many years now as a symbiotic relationship that allows plants to grow better in areas that have poor soil - many conifer plantations in the UK are examples of vigorous growth in very poor soil that is assisted by fungi. The fungi are thought to be fed carbohydrates by the plant while the plant gains access to nutrients (e.g. phosphates) that are scarce and growth limiting.

However we are beginning to realise that the fungi do far more. Networks of fungal threads connect up many plant roots, not only providing access to nutrients but also acting as a communication system between plants! This has good and bad consequences for individual plants:


  • Large, established 'parent' trees have been shown to provide food to young seedlings
  • Nutrients are known to flow between trees of different species
  • 'Warnings' are exchanged between plants when pathogens are causing damage to one plant so that the others can bolster their defences against infection
  • Some 'malevolent' species use the fungal internet to 'steal' food from others
  • Some plants will use the fungal internet to 'poison' their neighbours and gain a growth advantage 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Bagpipers Urged to Keep Their Pipes Clean of Fungi


WARNING: your bagpipes may kill you! 

Leading piping organisations have issued a hygiene alert after a piper was hospitalised for four weeks having contracted a potentially fatal lung infection… from his ­bagpipes.

John Shone, an expert in classical piping, first learned to play while a member of the Boys’ Brigade seven decades ago and has practised daily ever since.

But the 77-year-old’s love of Scotland’s national instrument was sorely tested after he ­inhaled fungal spores which had colonised his bagpipes.

The College of Piping has now warned pipers to be aware of the dangers of not cleaning their bagpipes properly, particularly those that have modern synthetic bags, which do not demand the traditional maintenance treatments that help keep old-style bags, made from hide, clean.
Shone, a former committee member of the Piobaireachd Society, was preparing to play at a special event in September when he fell ill during a fishing trip to Scotland. He was forced to return to his ­Wiltshire home.

His GP prescribed anti­biotics but they did not work and he was admitted to hospital. Two days later, he was sent home, but a week later his health deteriorated rapidly and he was quickly readmitted to ­hospital.

As he lay in a critical condition, doctors were mystified by the cause of his illness and struggled in vain for more than a week to cure him using a variety of antibiotics.

“I was extremely tired and slowly fading away and my consultant told me it was life-threatening,” said Shone, who added that he had been told the spores he had inhaled had a 50 per cent chance of killing him.

“I became very much weaker and it was obvious to my consultant and my son that they were dealing with a life-or-death situation,” he added.

It was only after a consultant questioned him about his hobbies that a possible cause was found.

Read the full article by Fiona MacGregor


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Aspergillus Protease Allergens have a Role in Asthma

Asthma is a debilitating disease characterised by airway inflammation, hyperresponsiveness and bronchoconstriction leading to symptoms such as wheeze, cough and breathlessness, and in severe cases even death.

Adults with severe asthma have significantly greater test reactivity to fungi (incl. Aspergillus fumigatus) compared with other well established allergens eg house dust mite and 50% of those with the most severe asthma attacks (i.e. those admitted to intensive care units) are sensitive to at least one fungal allergen .

Given these observations, the authors of this recent paper set out to discover if Aspergillus allergens have a role in the exacerbation of asthma and thus make symptoms far worse for the patient. They focused on a subset of Aspergillus allergens that not only provide a potential for allergic reaction in the patient, but also have an additionally destructive activity known as protease. Proteases can directly attack the surface of our lungs and airways, potentially destroying the delicate proteins that are so important to form the structure of the airways and the mechanisms that control infection and immunity. It is thought that these proteases could initiate the characteristic hyper-reactivity of the airways of a severe asthmatic.

The authors were able to remove two protease allergens from a strain of A. fumigatus that is known to induce asthma-like symptoms in mice. When tested in mice the effect was to reduce airway inflammation and airway remodelling, thus reducing two of the most prominent symptoms of asthma - hopefully this would be repeated if the same experiment was to be carried out in humans!


It is hoped that this result will highlight the importance of fungi in causing and exacerbating severe asthma and that more research can now be carried out on drugs which might block the activities of fungal allergens in these patients.

It is worth mentioning that there are two further allergic diseases that could benefit from this research. Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis (ABPA) as well as Severe Asthma with Fungal Sensitivity (SAFS) prominently feature the growth of fungi (in particular Aspergillus) in the airways of the affected people. Perhaps protease allergens are one way that Aspergillus can gain a foothold in the lungs of these people and gradually grow?





Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A New Direction for Antibiotic Development Thanks to Fungi

Could there be a new form of antibiotic? Scientists have identified a new substance with antibiotic tendencies. Typical antibiotics are non-protein organic compounds, but this new substance has been found to be a protein called copsin.



Copsin has been isolated from a common inky cap mushroom Coprinopsis cinerea, a fungus that grows on horse dung. Research found that copsin was the protein that enabled the fungus to kill certain bacteria. They have currently found that copsin is a very stable protein. It is resistant to exposure to protein degrading enzymes and high temperatures for several hours. It acts by inhibiting reproduction of the bacteria by binding to an essential building block in the wall of bacteria. Further investigations into the protein aim to discover what possible uses copsin can provide.

One thought is it could help discover how fungi use this ability to resist bacteria without having the issue of resistance, a major problem with today’s antibiotics. Uses of copsin have also been suggested in the food industry.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Flying Fungus - Covert Mycelia!



Drones (unmanned remotely controlled aircraft on which equipment such as cameras are mounted) have been used by the military for some time for high level surveillance tasks, but now are increasingly available to civil authorities and members of the public, though their use is subject to strict regulations in the UK.

A student team has recently created a drone that consists of the vegetative part of fungi call the mycelium and protective sheets of bacteria covering it. This provides the structure that contains the controls, propellers and battery (which remain non-biological). 

This aim of this design was to have a device that can degrade into the landscape and not leaving any evidence of its presence. Also, by using proteins from wasp saliva, the team was able to waterproof the drone, maximising bio-degradability. Despite not currently being fully bio-degradable, the team’s overall aim to achieve this in the near future. Real world applications such as flying over sensitive environments or even spying have been suggested.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Toxic Mould in Herbal Medicines


Dried herbal medicines

It is estimated that the herbal medicine industry is worth $60 billion. Over 60% of people use medicinal plants to treat illnesses and relieve pain, but with the majority of medicinal plants unregulated, what could those people also be exposing themselves to.

A new study has found 43% of the plants naturally contaminated with toxins, 30% of these being carcinogenic substance known as aflatoxins. They found 26% contains ochratoxin A, a toxic substance to the liver and kidneys and can increase the susceptibility to disease as it suppresses the immune system.

A call for greater regulation on these products has been called for to ensure the health of those using them. The public need to be aware that just because it is natural, does not mean it is safe. The products can be contaminated at any stage of production with consumers unaware whether the products they purchase have toxic levels of substances. To benefit from this industry, controls need to be put into place that ensures the safety of the user.

Original article:


Friday, 31 October 2014

Aflatoxin, an Invisible Food Hazard?

Part of the popular media have long been making much out of the fact that fungi such as Aspergillus can produce highly toxic compounds when growing under the right conditions. The right conditions can cause contamination on plant material that forms part of our food chain, so it follows that these toxins are poisoning us. Can this be correct?

There is certainly plenty of evidence that if left unchecked, mould contamination of foods can cause quite serious health problems but these are mainly in the developing world where crops are sometimes poorly stored and mouldy food is the only food available on some occasions. People that are forced to eat mouldy food can develop liver cancer and children can have their growth stunted.

In parts of the world that are more strictly regulated the presence of mycotoxin in food is highly regulated with regular testing of many food crops, but this article suggests that there are weak points in the screening mechanisms. In the US monitoring is only carried out when food passes between states, so if there is a contaminated batch of food (e.g. grain produced during a severe drought) and it is consumed e.g. as animal feed then there is no mechanism in place to detect it. Consequently animal food products could contain higher levels of toxin.

Several such cases were detected in EU in 2013 resulting in widespread contamination of milk intended for human consumption.

The cause of the contamination was quickly identified and removed from the food chain (Grain emanating from Serbia in this case)  but it might beg the question that cases occur that go undetected, even in the more highly developed countries of the world.

It has been suggested that global climate warming might be contributing to this problem.  Perhaps it is time the screening and regulation was reviewed and education of the public, in particular farmers stepped up to combat this health problem. It might need more investment in equipment for safely storing food crops or it might be a case for achieving more harmony in toxin regulation between countries. Whatever it takes, this potential health hazard is sure not to go away without our intervention.

NB one or two hints and tips for the domestic user to avoid mycotoxins are mentioned here.


Friday, 24 October 2014

Wikipedia as the Front Matter to all Research for Public Use

Wikipedia is a initiative that has become extremely successful at providing encyclopedic coverage of almost any subject you might be find interesting or useful. It has a very simple modus operandi in that it permits anyone to write articles on any subject they wish. Others are then given open permission to edit those articles. No-one owns any part of the project, neutrality and freedom are prized. There are only five rules governing content generation, the fifth of which is that there are no firm rules!

A recipe for chaos? Not at all - in practice acts of ignorance or vandalism are quickly removed - this has been a huge success for collaborative work and free access. Quoting Wikipedia:
Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest reference websites, attracting 470 million unique visitors monthly as of February 2012. [1] There are more than 76,000 active contributors working on more than 31,000,000 articles in 285 languages. As of today, there are 4,630,235 articles in English. Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia. (See the statistics page for more information.) Where once it took huge amounts of work to maintain comprehensive encyclopedias and it could only be done at high cost we now have far larger bodies of work that are maintained free of charge.

Many of the articles featured are contributed by researchers using their most recent research results.
There is a suggestion that this could be taken a step further for the research communities themselves:

 A session at the recent Wikimania conference provided an opportunity for discussion: “The fount of all knowledge – wikipedia as the front matter to all research“. 
The abstract describes how: This discussion focuses on how Wikipedia could become the entry or discovery point to all significant research for the general public, and for scholars who are working just outside of the topic of interest. For most people, even researchers from closely related areas, summaries and explanations of a piece of research can be a crucial means both to discover and to begin to get into a new piece of research. 
 Currently overviews of research topics are supported through two mechanisms: reviews and “front matter” content. A review is a systematic summary of a field, written by an expert. These go out of date quickly, particularly in rapidly moving areas of research. Front matter is “News and Views” pieces, often found at the “front” of scientific journals that explain newly published research and put it in context. This often includes a discussion of explaining how the research is an important advance and its broader societal implications. 
 Both of these functions could easily be provided in a more up to date and scalable manner by tapping into a global community of experts. Wikipedia articles are often the top web search result for initial queries in many research areas and these articles are a major source of traffic for scientific journals. As the first port of call for many users of research and a significant discovery route the potential for Wikipedia as a form of dynamic, expertly curated “front matter” for the whole research literature is substantial. This facilitated discussion session will focus on how this role could be enhanced, what is currently missing and what risks exist in taking this route. 

There are difficulties to overcome but it is easy to see  the attraction of the availability of constantly updated extensive reviews for the use of the professional community. Currently reviews are out of date by the time they are published, this technology may make that delay in disseminating and summarising scientific research a thing of the past.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Fungi Transform Waste into Biofuel

Wine waste
This article was originally written by Lea Kivivali on Phys.org

Researchers at Swinburne University of Technology have developed a technique for converting winery waste into compounds that could have potential value as biofuels or medicines.

Australia is the world's sixth largest wine producer, with around 1.75 million tonnes of grapes crushed for wine every year. After the final pressing, more than half of the grapes crushed end up as biomass waste comprised of skins, pulp, stalks and seeds.
Unlike other agricultural by-products, this waste has limited use as animal feed due to its poor nutrient value and digestibility. It is also not suitable as compost because it doesn't degrade. Thus a majority of this grape waste ends up as toxic landfill.
As part of his PhD research, Swinburne student Avinash Karpe has been investigating how to break down this woody material composed of cellulose, pectins and lignins into simpler compounds that can be used to create other things such as ethanol or other biofuels.
He performed a series of experiments to develop the best procedure for degrading winery biomass waste.
"Various fungi are known to degrade this waste by generating an array of enzymes," Mr Karpe said. "These enzymes convert the  to soluble sugars which can then be converted into other products."
He discovered that a 30-minute heat activated pretreatment aided in the breakdown of these biomolecules.
Using a 'cocktail' of four fungi – Trichoderma harzianum, Aspergillus niger, Penicillium chrysogenum and Penicillium citrinum, in a one litre bioreactor, Mr Karpe succeeded in breaking down the biomass, with noticeable increases in enzyme activity and lignin degradation.
This fermentation process takes one to three weeks and produced alcohols, acids and simple sugars of industrial and medicinal interest.
"We have demonstrated this technique in the laboratory, but this process can be scaled up to an industrial scale," Chair of Swinburne's Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology, Professor Enzo Palombo, said.
The Swinburne researchers worked with CSIRO on this research with material obtained from Australian Wine Research Institute in SA.
This research has been published in the Journal of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology.
More information: Karpe, A. V., Beale, D. J., Harding, I. H. and Palombo, E. A. (2014), "Optimization of degradation of winery-derived biomass waste by Ascomycetes." J. Chem. Technol. Biotechnol.. DOI: 10.1002/jctb.4486, Partly submitted: Annual Scientific Meeting and Exhibition, Australian Society for Microbiology, Melbourne, Australia. 6–9 July 2014

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Omalizumab: a New Treatment Option for Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis (ABPA)


ABPA is an allergic infection of the airways. It is not yet clear why some people get ABPA while most of us do not as the infecting mould is inhaled by nearly all of us on a daily basis. For most of us this is not a problem as our lungs are lined with protective immune cells that destroy the mould before its can establish itself, but for those rare few with ABPA this did not happen and the mould (Aspergillus) persisted and grew to block airways and cause inflammation. It rarely invades anything but the air spaces, it does not invade our lung tissues but does cause a lot of irritation and breathing problems that cannot be cured. This is a long term seriously debilitating condition.

One population we know is particularly vulnerable to ABPA is those people with cystic fibrosis (CF). Figures vary but something like 10 - 25% of people with CF get ABPA. Perhaps that is not surprising as their lungs are prone to infections as they cannot properly rid themselves of infectious particles including mould spores. Someone with CF already has severe problems breathing without suffering from contributing infections and some figures suggest 50% of all people living with CF have some form of infection by Aspergillus - not all are thought to progress to ABPA.

Treatment for ABPA is to use steroids to control inflammation and often an antifungal drug which can allow the dose of the steroid medication to be minimised, thus helping to avoid some of the many unpleasant side effects of taking high dose corticosteroids. This doesn't work for everyone and alternatives are being actively sought.

Originally developed for severe asthmatics, Omalizumab (Xolair) directly targets the parts of our immune system that leads to excessive inflammation. In asthmatics this has been demonstrated to lessen symptoms and has benefited patients. Many CF patients and those with ABPA are also asthmatic. ABPA is known to cause chronic airway inflammation and so ABPA patients are a candidate for use of this drug.

Some of the toughest patients to treat are probably those with CF and ABPA and we now have the first reports of patients from those groups who are being treated with Omalizumab. The most recent paper by Lehman et. al. looks at a small number of patients (6) with wide age range (age 4 - 33) treated over 7 years and suggested that Omalizumab was beneficial especially in those who had less progressed disease with benefits of taking lass corticosteroid also apparent.

This result offers hope for alternative treatment to ABPA patients who do not have CF,


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Detecting Fungus in the CF Patient Environment A Rising Concern

A recent paper released by the team here at the National Aspergillosis Centre has raised concern in the cystic fibrosis community that there may be many cases of Aspergillus infection amongst people living with CF that are going undetected.

This article, originally written by Maureen Newman discusses the implications:

In light of the news that almost 50% of cystic fibrosis patients are infected with Aspergillus mold,health leaders are reminding patients that it is important to limit exposure to agents that can cause infection for patients with cystic fibrosis. Certain services exist for patients interested in testing their environment for Aspergillus and other microorganisms.
“It is not healthy for anyone to be exposed to high levels of Aspergillus, but this new research sheds light on the need for those with cystic fibrosis to be especially vigilant,” said Jason Dobranic, PhD, Vice President of Microbiology and Life Sciences at LA Testing and EMSL Analytical, Inc., in a news release from the company. LA Testing, based in California, where a large percentage of the estimated 30,000 children with cystic fibrosis live, conducts indoor air quality testing for a number of chemicals and biologicals.
By detecting and limiting exposure to Aspergillus, an individual’s risk for developing aspergillosis is greatly decreased. Aspergillosis, which presents in many different forms, sometimes only causes symptoms and other times causes tissue damage. Allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) causes wheezing and coughing but does not invade or destroy tissue. Invasive aspergillosis causes damage to tissues–usually the lungs of patients with weakened immune symptoms.
For cystic fibrosis patients who have already been affected with ABPA, a new treatment option is being investigated at RWTH Aachen University’s University Hospital in Germany. A recent report, published online ahead of print in Therapeutic Advances in Respiratory Disease, entitled “Omalizumab: A New Treatment Option for Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis in Patients with Cystic Fibrosis,” conducted a retrospective study of six patients with concurrent ABPA and cystic fibrosis who had been treated with omalizumab. The observation period was 7.5 years. During and after treatment, all patients showed clinical and laboratory stability of disease, with some patients showing improvements.
The researchers noted that “Early onset treatment may be beneficial and patients with early stage of lung disease seem to benefit more,” suggesting that early disease detection is vital. Patients who find their environments are enriched in Aspergillus through air quality testing may have a better chance of being diagnosed and treated sooner.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

US IDSA Calls for Increased Emphasis on the Fight Against Antibiotic Resistance


As we have all become used to taking antibiotics for infections we tend to take them for granted. However awareness is growing that more and more antibiotics are being rendered useless by the rise of strains of fungi & bacteria that are resistant to one or more antibiotics.

Compounding the problem is the fact that few drug companies are voluntarily developing new antibiotics. One of the essential principles of the capitalist system is that you should only invest money in projects that will make money, and there seems to be little money in antibiotic development for the large private drug companies that must take major financial risks to develop any drug. Shareholders are generally interested in profits rather than philanthropy.

According to this timeline there were 20 antibiotics developed between 1990 and 1999 but only 6 entered use between 2000 and 2009.

It therefore falls to public funds to stimulate interest in antibiotics in the public interest. In the US the Infectious Diseases Society of America has joined in the fight to try to persuade the US government to promote the development of new antibiotics.

Quoting:

IDSA members enacted the 2012 Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) Act, which incentivizes antibiotic development by providing a 5-year extension of market exclusivity for new drugs that treat serious or life-threatening infections.
However, pharmaceutical companies are still facing significant economic, scientific and regulatory barriers, she said. Nowhere is this more evident than with carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which the CDC deemed the “nightmare bacteria” in 2013. With no safe or effective antibiotic treatments available, up to 50% of patients with CRE bloodstream infections die. Meanwhile, there are only a handful of novel antibiotics currently in development for CREs. All of these are unlikely to be approved by the FDA, given that they still face risk of failure in clinical trials.


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Isavuconazole Causes Fewer Side Effects Compared With Voriconazole: ICAAC 2014


Important drug development work carried out by the University of Wurzburg and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the US was reported at the recent antimicrobial conference ICAAC 2014.

It had already been established that the new antifungal drug isavuconazole shows much promise for the treatment of aspergillosis. It is at least as good as existing antifungal drugs e.g. voriconazole when used to treat aspergillosis so it remained to be proven what the advantages of using this new drug might be.

This new report shows that patients given isavuconazole are less prone to side effects compared with voriconazole. This is an important issue as the rate of intolerance in patients who take antifungal drugs can be high and can lead to discontinuation of treatment.

Quoting:

Of those patients with uncontrolled cancer, 40% (70 subjects) who received isavuconazole experienced drug-related adverse events, compared with 60% (112 people) of those who received the already-licensed drug.
Of those with uncontrolled cancer who received voriconazole for their fungal infections, 24% (44 subjects) experienced problems related to the eye, compared with 15% (26 individuals) who were randomised to receive the experimental agent.
Of the 516 patients, 272 had uncontrolled malignancy, while others had cancer that was in remission, rheumatoid arthritis or HIV. Some had diabetes, a substantial number of whom had mucormycosis, Marr said.
For those subjects without an uncontrolled malignancy, 35% (25 individuals) of those on voriconazole had eye-related side effects, compared with 15% (13 patients) of those who received isavuconazole, the poster said.
The experimental drug was also associated with fewer cases of liver toxicity in patients without uncontrolled cancer. Four subjects (5%) without uncontrolled malignancy who received isavuconazole experienced liver problems compared with 14 subjects (19%) who were randomized to voriconazole.
We might conclude that there is a 40-60% reduction in severe side effects when using isavuconazole compared with voriconazole. This could be of great benefit to many patients.

In addition isavuconazole was shown to have 100% bio availability (compared with 82% bio availability of voriconazole). This means that there are likely to be fewer problems with managing drug dose when isavuconazole is taken orally - again this is an improvement likely to benefit some patients and may even make management of the drug cheaper in some cases!





Tuesday, 23 September 2014

US FDA Accepts New Drug Application Filing for Isavuconazole


Drug developer Astellas has applied for approval to bring its new antifungal medication to clinics in the United States (this antifungal drug approval application has already been accepted in Europe), A decision in the US is scheduled for March 8th 2015.

Quoting:

The US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) has accepted for filing the New Drug Application (NDA) for Astellas' isavuconazole for the treatment of invasive aspergillosis and invasive mucormycosis (also known as zygomycosis), which are life-threatening fungal infections predominantly occurring in immuno compromised patients. In accordance with the FDA Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA), the FDA designated the date of March 8, 2015 for the completion of the review. 

The FDA designated isavuconazole as a Qualified Infectious Disease Product (QIDP) for both invasive aspergillosis and invasive mucormycosis. QIDP status provides priority review and a five-year extension of market exclusivity in the United States. QIDP incentives were granted under the 2012 US Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) Act as a part of the FDA Safety and Innovation Act. Also, in 2013, isavuconazole was granted Orphan Drug status for invasive aspergillosis and invasive mucormycosis which, if approved, will result in the product having seven years of market exclusivity in addition to that provided under the GAIN Act.

Original article 

Interestingly as isavuconazole was initially developed by a different company: Basilea, the FDA's acceptance of filing for New Drug Application will trigger a multi-million dollar payment to Basilea, presumably because it represents an agreed point when the drug may start to make money for the development companies.

NB Basilea still owns the rights to market isavuconazole outside of the US! Global drug development and marketing sometimes gets very complicated!


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Make Research Papers Free for All!

Much research that is produced is at least part funded by the taxpayer. Those papers are then published by journals who charge taxpayers to read them! There is a rising movement to make all research paid for by taxpayers available free of charge or other hindrance to taxpayers - in the UK it has been possible to access millions of academic articles free of charge since early 2014, but all are not yet open and unrestricted and access is limited to UK public libraries.

The open information source Wikipedia has been used to provide links to more free resources - mainly University repositories - that provide more links to the work of University researchers.
This has triggered the following suggestion (and a workshop) at the recent Wikimania conference:

This discussion focuses on how Wikipedia could become the entry or discovery point to all significant research for the general public, and for scholars who are working just outside of the topic of interest. For most people, even researchers from closely related areas, summaries and explanations of a piece of research can be a crucial means both to discover and to begin to get into a new piece of research. 
Currently overviews of research topics are supported through two mechanisms: reviews and “front matter” content. A review is a systematic summary of a field, written by an expert. These go out of date quickly, particularly in rapidly moving areas of research. Front matter is “News and Views” pieces, often found at the “front” of scientific journals that explain newly published research and put it in context. This often includes a discussion of explaining how the research is an important advance and its broader societal implications. 
Both of these functions could easily be provided in a more up to date and scalable manner by tapping into a global community of experts. Wikipedia articles are often the top web search result for initial queries in many research areas and these articles are a major source of traffic for scientific journals. As the first port of call for many users of research and a significant discovery route the potential for Wikipedia as a form of dynamic, expertly curated “front matter” for the whole research literature is substantial. This facilitated discussion session will focus on how this role could be enhanced, what is currently missing and what risks exist in taking this route.

So not only could Wikipedia contribute further in the publication of original research, it could also play an important role in the summarisation of whole fields of research by experts in their fields in a way that expands on current 'static' methods of the review and journal article. Wikipedia currently provides a massive encyclopedia of information on many millions of subjects, many benefiting from contributions by field experts. These online documents are edited quickly and easily by people who read them and see mistakes that can be corrected - they can then login and start typing directly into the article - a form of expert community consensus is the result.

Perhaps this same style of article writing could be used to summarise current research? A review in a static paper such as we have now goes out of date rapidly as new papers are published - indeed they are oftwn already out of date by the time they are published. A 'Wiki-review' could prevent the loss of all the effort it takes to write a review, enabling editing of just those sections that are affected by a new paper rather than rendering the whole review useless. In that way the 'Wiki-review' stays up to date and is an effective description of the state of the art of its field of research.

Of course there will be problems when two scientists fail to agree on the nuances of a particular paper in a particular field, but experience has been that compromises rise naturally out of the dispute and a form of consensus is formed.

Worth a try?


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Damp and Mould are a Health Risk to Asthma Sufferers: A Review


There have been a series of research papers published over several years on the subject of whether damp living conditions are correlated with asthma. Some papers seem to support the claim, others do not. This most recent publication, a review from 3 labs in the UK looks at all of those papers and searches for threads of evidence running through all of them. Because this approach looks at all research taken together its conclusions are stronger than each paper looked at on its own.

Earlier papers, including the 2009 review article from the World Health Organisation have described damp as 'strongly associated' with some respiratory illnesses including exacerbation of asthma but found no strong evidence to suggest that mould itself was associated.

The findings of this new review seem to suggest more strongly that there is a link between moulds and asthma. They looked at the populations of moulds found in homes prior to the development of asthma and prior to exacerbation

Quoting from the paper:
Conclusion: Longitudinal studies assessing increased exposure
to indoor fungi before the development of asthma symptoms
suggests that Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Cladosporium species
pose a respiratory health risk in susceptible populations.
Increased exacerbation of current asthma symptoms in children
and adults were associated with increased levels of Penicillium,
Aspergillus, Cladosporium, and Alternaria species, although
further work should consider the role of fungal diversity and
increased exposure to other fungal species.
The conclusions are thus fairly strong in favour of the presence of particular moulds themselves being associated with asthma and increased asthma. This is not the same as saying that they are the cause of the asthma but this is another step in that direction. Of course it still could be that the presence of these moulds tells us that something else - the true cause - is present (e.g. the presence of mould indicates high humidity, high humidity also causes several other things to happen, one of which might cause asthma). It might also be telling us that mould spores might be a cause, as might vapours produced by moulds as both are deeply inhaled.

The authors suggest further work should identify more genus' & specific species of mould that correlate with asthma so as to get a more complete picture of what is going on in this complex scenario. Newer technologies designed to identify many hundreds of specific species based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) are capable of doing this so they may well form the basis of future experiments. Exposure to moulds may occur more than once and this may be improtant for the development of asthma, consequently future experiments need to be designed with this in mind.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

100% accuracy for diagnosis of Invasive Aspergillosis


A recent report on the diagnosis of invasive aspergillosis concludes that the use of a combination of two quite new PCR-based tests gives investigators the ability to detect aspergillosis with 100% accuracy. That is a pretty optimistic claim given that the best PCR-based molecular tests to date have sensitivity rates of 79% (i.e. the proportion of patients identified by the test who are known to have invasive aspergillosis) and specificity of 94% (i.e. the proportion of patients who are known not to have invasive aspergillosis that are correctly identified by the test) in blood samples - see recent diagnostics review.

The authors of the paper state that they have used two nucleic acid amplification techniques - one amplifies single standed RNA (NASBA) thus presumably largely works by amplifying expressed genes or other sequences, the other amplifies DNA sequences (qPCR) thus presumably identifies whole or fragmented fungal cells. Each will use sequences that are specific to Aspergillus.

The paper claims that use of a combination of these two tests (which separately have sensitivities of 77% and 68% respectively, specificity of 80% and 89% respectively) gives perfect specificity of 100% , meaning all those identified as not having aspergillosis were correct diagnoses.

The combination of tests also gives 100% positive predictor value (PPV) which is a measure of its accuracy i.e. the number of known positives compared with the number of positives indicated by the tests. Given that this figure refers to the proportion of a population that are identified correctly it suggests that the expected number of positives were identified. However the authors do not highlight the figure for the sensitivity of the combined tests other than mention that it was 'the most sensitive' of the combinations tested.

These figures are striking and offer much encouragement for those in need of a reliable diagnostic test for invasive aspergillosis. In this study the sample population was quite small (80 patients) and analysis was done retrospectively, which is an approach with several weaknesses.


Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Fungal Vaccine Development Supported by NIH Research Grant

New ways to treat aspergillosis and other fungal infections are urgently needed. Existing antifungal medication is very good but only seems to be able to effectively prevent 60% of deaths by invasive aspergillosis (NB NOT the form of aspergillosis referred to as semi-invasive). We need new strategies and routes of attack.

Earlier Aspergillus Website blogs have indicated that the development of a vaccine to help fight fungal infections and in particular aspergillosis would be welcome as a new method of attack available to doctors:
The work showed that it might be possible to generate a vaccine that would be able to offer protection against several fungal infections at the same time

In an earlier blog we stated:
Another approach would be to develop a pan fungal vaccine which targets most serious fungal infections. Evidence recently published (Stevens et al) suggests that a combination of glycan (cell wall component) with an immunogenic protein - based on studies from heat killed Saccharomyces (yeast), may lead to developing such a pan fungal vaccine.

This is largely the work of Prof David Stevens MD at the California Institute for Medical Research and thanks to the success of the earlier efforts his group have just received a grant to further this work:

The technology involves combining a purified fungal carbohydrate and a protein antigen into a single vaccine. In previous studies Biothera with its expertise in carbohydrate chemistry created a vaccine by conjugating beta glucan particles a major component of fungal cell walls with a nonfungal protein antigen. The new funding will extend development to conjugating beta glucan particles with a specific protein antigen shared among different fungi potentially providing the basis for a pan-fungal vaccine.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Use of Isavuconazole for Invasive Aspergillosis

The new antifungal drug isavuconazole has received approval in Europe for its as a treatment for invasive aspergillosis.

Isavuconazole (drug substance: isavuconazonium sulfate) is an investigational once-daily intravenous and oral broad-spectrum antifungal for the potential treatment of life-threatening invasive fungal infections which predominantly occur in immunocompromised patients such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. It has EU and U.S. orphan drug status for the treatment of invasive aspergillosis and mucormycosis. In the U.S. isavuconazole was granted FDA fast-track status and designated a Qualified Infectious Disease Product (QIDP) for invasive aspergillosis mucormycosis and candidiasis under the U.S. GAIN Act.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

British Crayfish Facing Extinction Due to Fungal Infection


A recent story in the Independent newspaper tells us the sad tale of the last few British white clawed crayfish (our largest inland invertebrate) in Dorset now in imminent threat of being wiped out by a fungal infection against which they have little immunity.

It isn't known how the fungus (Aphanomyes astaci) has spread to the River Allen which holds 40% of the UK population and it could be that it will now spread to the remaining parts of the UK.

All 8,000 of the river’s white-clawed crayfish are forecast to perish at the hands of the plague, a fungal disease carried by the larger Signal Crayfish from America, which is immune to it. Matt Shardlow, head of the Buglife insect charity, said: “Generally there’s no coming back once the plague arrives and I think it means we’re looking at the imminent end of the species across the south west,” adding that there is a real danger it could eventually spread across the whole country.
The white-clawed crayfish is the UK’s only native crayfish species. Other populations exist in the UK in areas such as the Midlands and East Anglia, but numbers are sparse and traditional strongholds in the Peak District and Ribble river in the North West have been almost wiped out. The species is on the endangered list.
The spread of the disease to the River Allen will accelerate the decline of the species, which is already estimated to have tumbled by 95 per cent since its peak. Once the disease infects crayfish, they are typically killed within weeks.Signal crayfish were brought to the UK in the 1970s, with many escaping into waterways through canals and some released into water courses because they can be fished for their tails. Their damage has been intensified by the ease with which they spread through waterways.

Original article

Friday, 29 August 2014

GPs urged to test all asthma patients for allergies to reduce attacks


This recent article in the publication 'GP' highlights the issue of allergens in the patients environment causing at least some of the worsening of their symptoms, sometimes leading to acute attacks. Prevention of exposure could help two thirds of all asthma patients in the UK control their illness more effectively. Prevention starts with awareness on the part of the patient but also on the part of their doctor but the important allergy tests are not being carried out.

Asthma UK states that if more allergy tests (including dust mite, pollen, animal dander, food and mould) were carried out then patients (and their carers) would be able to avoid their triggers and thus manage their own illness better. Two thirds do not know what their triggers are!

Moulds in particular are increasingly coming under suspicion as having a lot more involvement in uncontrolled asthma than previously suspected. Severe Asthma with Fungal Sensitisation (SAFS) is a fairly new concept that affects roughly half of all severe, uncontrolled asthmatics. Treatment with an oral antifungal is known to benefit such patients.

 Treatment options in severe fungal asthma and allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis


Friday, 22 August 2014

Report on the State of the Art of Rare Disease Activities in Europe – 2014


Rare diseases are diseases with a particularly low prevalence; the European Union considers diseases to be rare when they affect not more than 5 per 10 000 persons in the European Union. It is estimated that between 5 000 and 8 000 distinct rare diseases exist, estimated as affecting between 6% and 8% of the population in the course of their lives. In other words, although rare diseases are characterised by low prevalence for each of  them, the total number of people affected by rare diseases in the EU is estimated at between 27 and 36 million. Most of them suffer from less frequently occurring diseases affecting one in 100 000 people or less.

These patients are particularly isolated and vulnerable. The definition of a rare disease as having a prevalence of not more than 5 in 10 000 first appeared in EU legislation in Regulation (EC) N°141/2000 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 1999 on orphan medicinal products.

The Community action programme on rare diseases including genetic diseases for the period 1 January 1999 to 31 December 2003 then applied this definition to the field of public health.

Most rare diseases are genetic diseases, the others being rare cancers, auto-immune diseases, congenital
malformations, toxic and infectious diseases among other categories. Research on rare diseases has proved to be very useful to better understand the mechanism of common conditions such as obesity and diabetes, as
they often represent a model of dysfunction of a single biological pathway. However, research on rare diseases is not only scarce, but also scattered in different laboratories throughout the EU. The lack of specific health policies for rare diseases and the scarcity of expertise, translate into delayed diagnosis and difficult access to care. This results in additional physical, psychological and intellectual impairments, inadequate or even harmful treatments and loss of confidence in the health care system, despite the fact that some rare diseases are compatible with a normal life if diagnosed on time and properly managed. Misdiagnosis and non-diagnosis are the main hurdles to improving quality of life for thousands of rare disease patients.

The specificities of rare diseases, including a limited number of patients and scarcity of relevant knowledge and expertise, single them out as a distinctive domain of very high European added-value. European cooperation can help to ensure that scarce knowledge can be shared and resources combined as efficiently as possible, in order to tackle rare diseases effectively across the EU as a whole. The European Commission has already taken specific steps in many areas to address the issues of rare diseases. Building on those achievements, the Commission Communication on Europe's Challenges in the field of Rare Diseases (11 November 2008) and the Council Recommendation on an action in the field of rare diseases (08 June 2009) aim to give a clear direction to present and future Community activities in the field of rare diseases in order to further improve the access to and equity of prevention, diagnosis and treatment for patients suffering from a rare disease throughout the European Union.

Report on the state of the art of rare disease activities in Europe – 2014 edition (Part 1: Overview of rare disease activities in Europe)

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