(ORDO NEWS) — Utah State Health University scientists have found that the dangerous fungus Cryptococcus neoformans changes its size after it enters the body, increasing the chance of infection, the university said in a press release.
The fungus can be found under a wide variety of conditions and exhibits the same adaptability within the body when inhaled, moving from the lungs through the bloodstream to other organs.
Once ingested, it can cause deadly fungal meningitis, which causes brain swelling in people with weakened immune systems.
“Cryptococcus cells in the lungs are very diverse, have different sizes and different appearance.
When my graduate student showed me photographs of the homogeneity of brain cells, I was shocked,” says University of Utah pathologist Jessica Brown.
“This suggests that there is some very good reason why this population of cells alone makes it this far into the body.”
Brown’s fascination with the fungus was due to its ability to survive in different habitats. When unintentionally inhaled, it can spread from the lungs to the bloodstream, brain and other organs, each with its own complex microenvironment.
Previous results have shown that the fungus multiplies to ten times its normal size in order to survive in the lungs. However, in other parts of the body, fungal cells are smaller.
In this regard, Brown wondered if the ultra-small cell size could be another advantage. Perhaps this feature helps them to colonize other organs, such as the brain.
To find out why cells of a certain size were found so deep within the host’s territory, the researchers infected C. neoformans mice of different sizes and found that, compared with medium and large cells, the smallest ones preferred to infect the brain.
The researchers suggested that these “seed cells” are not only smaller versions of the fungus, but also something completely different.
Based on experiments, scientists hypothesized that these changes are caused by phosphate. Phosphate, released by host cells when tissues are damaged during infection, appears to be the catalyst for the fungus’s shape-shifting ability, allowing it to infect its hosts and reach the brain.
Brown’s team is currently trying to disable the fungus with drugs. They are trying to find out whether a substance that prevents C. neoformans from developing into seed cells might already exist and be used as a preventive or treatment for fungal meningitis.
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