UBC Scientists Coordinate Mapping of Killer Fungus Genome

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Scientists are a step closer to developing drug targets to treat fungal meningitis -- the infection linked to at least three deaths on Vancouver Island -- thanks to the sequencing of two Cryptococcus genomes by an international team that included researchers at the University of British Columbia and the BC Cancer Agency's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre in Vancouver.

“This fundamental information will help develop better diagnostic tools, as well as antifungal drugs and potential vaccines,” says professor Jim Kronstad of the Michael Smith Laboratories at UBC. “The genome mapping expertise found here in Vancouver has allowed us to take a big step forward in understanding these infections.”

Kronstad, a microbiologist, initiated the mapping portion of the study in collaboration with scientists at the BC Cancer Agency's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, and coordinated efforts with the international team, including scientists from The Institute of Genomic Research, Stanford University and Duke University in the United States. The team published its findings in Science.

In a three-year investigation, researchers sequenced two genomes for the Cryptococcus group of fungal pathogens. The team is currently completing and analyzing a third genome, Cryptococcus neoformans gatti, the species that caused the deadly outbreak of infections which were first detected on Vancouver Island in 1999. They will make comparisons between the genomes through a partnership with the UBC Bioinformatics Centre and publish the sequence of the additional genome this year.

Cryptococcus is a yeast-like fungal organism that can cause life-threatening infections, the most common being fungal meningitis that affects about 10 percent of AIDS patients in North America and 30 percent of patients in Africa. Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord.

Fungal meningitis generally attacks those with weakened immune systems. Individuals can become infected by inhaling Cryptococcus spores found in soil contaminated with decaying pigeon droppings. Symptoms of meningitis include severe headache, stiff neck, fever and vomiting. The disease can be fatal if not treated with anti-fungal drugs.

Support for this research was provided the Natural Sciences and Energy Research Council (NSERC) and by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. The current Cryptococcus genome sequencing project underway in Vancouver is funded by Genome Canada and Genome BC.

BC Cancer Agency's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre is a department of the BC Cancer Agency (BCCA), the cancer care and control organization for British Columbia. Part of the Provincial Health Services Authority, BCCA is committed to reducing the incidence of cancer, reducing the mortality from cancer, and improving the quality of life of those living with cancer.

The late Michael Smith was a UBC microbiology professor who received the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his work in programming segments of DNA.


Source: University of British Columbia

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