Compounds developed to protect farmers’ crops could be used to fight the spread of a life-threatening fungal infection that is invading hospitals, say scientists.
Candida auris was first identified in Japan in 2009 and has since been reported in at least 15 countries including the UK.
The fungus, a less common cousin of the yeast organism that causes thrush, has been identified in more than 20 NHS Trusts and private British hospitals.
It enters the body through surgical wounds or via urinary catheters or drips and is carried on clothes, equipment and hands.
Because of its resistance to multiple drugs C. auris has proved difficult to control. The fungus can spread rapidly through hospitals and cause serious infections that may threaten life.
Since July 2017 the organism has affected more than 200 hospital patients in the UK.
Scientists at the University of Sussex are now spearheading an urgent search for effective ways of combating the threat.
Promising early results suggest that one answer may be a family of compounds originally designed to protect cereal crops from resistant fungal infections.
The drugs suppress an enzyme called alternative oxidase (AOX) that helps to make the organisms immune to fungicides.
Professor Tony Moore, who leads the University of Sussex team and has studied AOX for more than 40 years, said: “The fundamental problem here is the same whether it is as field of wheat or a human patient – fungi developing a resistance as they are exposed to ever-more potent traditional treatments.
“We have had a very encouraging start in tackling this infection and with assistance now there is the potential to create a simple compound that could prove to help manage this infection within 18 months.”
The research had the potential to “save lives around the world”, he added.
Initial tests have shown that at least one novel AOX inhibitor demonstrates significant anti-fungal activity against C. auris, say the researchers.
The scientists, from the university’s Mycology Reference Laboratory (MRL) are looking for a commercial partner to speed up development of the agent and turn it into a treatment that can safely be given to patients.
The aim is to administer the drug by mouth or produce a film that can be placed over wounds.
C. auris outbreaks have been reported in the US, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Kuwait, India, Pakistan, Venezuela and Columbia as well as the UK.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US has described the fungus as a “serious global health threat”.
Between 30% and 60% of people infected by C. auris have died, according to the CDC.