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Researcher awarded $2.1 million NIH grant to study fungal infection common in cancer patients

A University of Toledo scientist has been awarded a $2.1 million National Institutes of Health grant to continue her research into one of the most common and debilitating conditions experienced by patients undergoing treatment for head and neck cancers.

Dr. Heather Conti, UT assistant professor of biological sciences, studies a fungal infection called oral candidiasis. The infection is more commonly known as thrush.

Conti

In otherwise healthy individuals, the condition is minor, but for those with compromised immune systems or undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, oral candidiasis can turn into a serious and potentially dangerous illness.

“Unfortunately, many patients who develop this condition choose to forego their cancer treatment,” Conti said. “It can actually have a direct link to cancer prognosis because the symptoms are too hard to deal with.”

The five-year grant, which is distributed through the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, will fund research into the role blood platelets play in the body’s natural defense against oral candidiasis.

“Platelets are commonly thought of for their role in blood clotting. But what we’re finding more and more is that platelets also play a very important role in the immune response,” Conti said. “They can protect against various bacteria — or in our case, fungi — which is a novel thought in the field. Platelets can be a much more complicated cell than just taking part in blood clotting.”

She is collaborating with Dr. Randall Worth, UT associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology, on the project.

The reason oral candidiasis can cause such serious problems in cancer patients is the fact that chemotherapy and radiation often destroy the mucous membrane in the mouth, allowing the fungi to grow unchecked. That, Conti said, can lead to sores on the gums or tongue, difficulty swallowing, bleeding and pain. If the fungal infection reaches the bloodstream and spreads throughout the body, it can become life-threatening.

Patients with HIV are also at greater risk of serious infection from oral candidiasis.

Candidiasis can be successfully treated with antifungal medications, but Conti said there is an emerging trend of strains that have developed resistance to commonly prescribed drugs. That limits clinicians’ options, particularly in individuals who are already in poor health.

The goal of this study, Conti said, is better understanding how the body fights the infection and how researchers might be able to leverage that response to formulate new treatments.

“The immune response to oral candidiasis is quite complicated. If platelets play an important role, we need to understand that response. The hope would be to develop therapeutics that not only kill the fungus directly, but can also bolster the immune response,” she said.