Fungus uses copper detoxification as crafty defense mechanism

Mar 14, 2013
The C. neoformans cells contain a gene that is expressed only when the cells encounter high levels of copper and expression of the gene is detected as the appearance of colors in live animal imaging studies.

(Phys.org) —A potentially lethal fungal infection appears to gain virulence by being able to anticipate and disarm a hostile immune attack in the lungs, according to findings by researchers at Duke Medicine.

Defense mechanisms used by the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans enable it to lead to fatal , which is one of the often associated with death in HIV/ or in , diabetics and other immunosuppressed patients. In describing the complex process of how C. neoformans averts destruction in the lungs of mice, the Duke researchers have opened new options for drug development.

"Very few are effective, so we need to identify the Achilles' heel of these ," said Dennis J. Thiele, PhD, the George Barth Geller Professor of Pharmacology and at Duke University. Thiele is senior author of a study published March 13, 2013, in the journal Cell Host & Microbe. "With this research we may be closer to understanding how this fungal pathogen evades death in its host, and hopefully be closer to finding effective treatments."

Found in the environment, C. neoformans spores can be inhaled and cause infection, particularly when people have weakened immune systems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that worldwide, C. neoformans causes 1 million cases of meningitis a year among HIV/AIDS patients, with nearly 625,000 deaths.

Thiele and colleagues focused on the interplay between C. neoformans in the lungs of mice and the host's immune system, which mounts an immediate attack against the pathogen.

The immune response is led by macrophages, which circulate in the blood stream and engulf invading microbes to destroy them. The macrophages are essentially tiny torture chambers for pathogens, using hostile conditions and toxic substances to kill invaders.

Among the substances inside the macrophages is copper, a mineral the body needs for normal cognitive function and development, but also known to have antifungal properties. In the face of a pathogenic invasion of fungal spores, the macrophages begin concentrating more copper within their torture chamber as one of the body's antifungal weapons.

The Duke researchers found that lethal strains of C. neoformans have two ways of battling against the toxicity of the copper. First, the pathogen turns on genes that make proteins to protect it from copper toxicity, so even when exposed to the hostile copper environment in the macrophages, it survives.

Then a second defense mechanism is also deployed. The fungus, sensing the copper-rich environment, triggers a response that shuts down the host's ability to pump more copper into the macrophages – defusing this weapon in the immune system's arsenal.

"With these two mechanisms, C. neoformans can defend itself by sequestering the copper, and somehow communicate to the host macrophage, commanding that it shut down the copper pumps," Thiele said.

Thiele said studies are now focusing on how antifungal agents might thwart the pathogen's two defense systems. "The detoxification machinery might represent an effective drug target," Thiele said.

Explore further: The malaria pathogen's cellular skeleton under a super-microscope

Related Stories

Predicting fatal fungal infections

Jun 16, 2009

In a study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have identified cells in blood that predict which HIV-positive indivi ...

Recommended for you

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

54 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Researchers develop new model of cellular movement

3 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Cell movement plays an important role in a host of biological functions from embryonic development to repairing wounded tissue. It also enables cancer cells to break free from their sites of ...

For resetting circadian rhythms, neural cooperation is key

23 hours ago

Fruit flies are pretty predictable when it comes to scheduling their days, with peaks of activity at dawn and dusk and rest times in between. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Cell Reports on April 17th h ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Mike_Massen
not rated yet Mar 14, 2013
And most people on a typical western diet are below the RDI for copper by a significant amount...

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Researchers develop new model of cellular movement

(Phys.org) —Cell movement plays an important role in a host of biological functions from embryonic development to repairing wounded tissue. It also enables cancer cells to break free from their sites of ...

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Under some LED bulbs whites aren't 'whiter than white'

For years, companies have been adding whiteners to laundry detergent, paints, plastics, paper and fabrics to make whites look "whiter than white," but now, with a switch away from incandescent and fluorescent lighting, different ...