Candida in orbit


When space shuttle Atlantis blasted off for its latest mission, the astronauts on board were accompanied by three types of microbe, one of which was the yeast Candida albicans. This will be the first time that
scientists have studied the effects of spaceflight on common microorganisms, and C albicans has been included because, whilst it is present as a natural part of the human flora, it has a recognised potential for harmful overgrowth.

The study should help in maintaining the health of astronauts on future missions, but may also lead to new ways to diagnose, treat and
perhaps even prevent infectious disease generally. (Read more on the microbe experiment.)

Meanwhile, on the ground, scientists at the University of Minnesota, US, have discovered how some strains of C albicans can develop resistance to anti-fungal drugs by modifying one of their own chromosomes.

The C albicans cell duplicates one arm on chromosome 5, then deletes the original arm and replaces this with the new arm, creating an 'isochromosome'. This tactic enables the cell to tolerate the anti-fungal drug and continue to grow and function unimpeded.

The research, reported in the 21 July, 2006 issue of Science (click here to read the report) could lead to more effective anti-fungal medicines. The first step is to find a companion drug that will block the formation of isochromosomes.

US sources report that candida infections in immune-suppressed patients lead to death in 30-50% of cases and estimate that, in spite of treatment with anti-fungal drugs, 10,000 US patients die each year as a result.

But while candida is recognised and is being researched in the US, doctors in the UK seem to be concerned with only the vulvo-vaginal and oral forms of candida (thrush) and seem to see this manifestation as merely a common, 'nuisance' condition which can be treated relatively easily with anti-fungal drugs.

Unless there is clinical evidence of immune suppression - as a result of AIDS, chemotherapy or anti-rejection drugs, for example - any symptoms other than those directly associated with thrush are likely to be dismissed by the vast majority of British doctors, or attributed to other causes.

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First Published December 2006


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