Grad student seeks clues to fungal exposure

Partnership with NIOSH researchers opens doors at WVU

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Fungal infections can be dangerous to people with compromised immune systems. They’re also a hazard for workers in agriculture and other occupations where long-term exposure to molds and other fungi can lead to allergies or trigger allergic reactions.

Ajay Nayak, a Ph.D. student in the Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis graduate program in the West Virginia University School of Medicine, is helping researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) develop an early-warning system for exposure to specific disease-producing fungi.

NIOSH operates a major research facility on the University’s Health Sciences campus. Collaborations between WVU faculty and NIOSH researchers provide opportunities for students at WVU to participate in federal health and safety research. NIOSH is the federal agency that conducts research and makes recommendations for preventing work-related illnesses and injuries.

Nayak’s research mentor, Donald Beezhold, Ph.D., is the chief of the Allergy and Clinical Immunology branch at NIOSH. Together, they are working to develop biomarkers that can help identify fungal exposure among workers. The biomarkers could also help physicians diagnose the fungal infections that often develop among patients undergoing cancer treatments that suppress the immune system.

“Conceptually, biomarkers are something that possibly relate to the cause of a disease,” Nayak said. “So when it comes to a fungal exposure or a fungal disease, we look for something that the fungus produces, such as a toxin or an allergen, something that can specifically identify that fungus. That is the biomarker.”

Nayak is working with the mold Aspergillus terreus and trying to identify proteins as biomarkers for diagnosis of fungal infections. “It’s important to identify this fungus early, because the infections it causes are resistant to first line anti-fungal treatments,” he said. “These infections can be fatal.”

So far, the studies have led to development of highly specific monoclonal antibodies to Aspergillus terreus. “Since it is expressed during early growth it may be available as an early stage biomarker for infectious disease. In addition, we have developed monoclonal antibodies to several other proteins that are actively secreted by this fungus which also hold diagnostic value,” he said.

Nayak says the dynamic research environment at NIOSH is adding to his educational experience at WVU. “In Dr. Beezhold’s laboratory, I have cherished the experience of working with people of different scientific and cultural backgrounds. Rarely do you get to work in an environment with representation from each of the continents. I have always felt secure and comfortable working in this environment and that has contributed significantly in our success. We have published several articles in peer reviewed journals and are getting ready to submit a few more,” he said.

–WVU–

For More Information:
Amy Johns, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087, johnsa@wvuhealthcare.com