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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — University of Tennessee microbiologists have helped discover a gene that makes a common fungal infection deadly to patients with weakened immune systems.

 Dr. Jeffrey Becker said identifying the gene could lead to more effective treatment of fungal infections that can kill people whose immune systems are weakened by chemotherapy or anti-rejection drugs following some organ transplants.

 The findings by Becker, a microbiology professor, Dr. Melinda Hauser, a UT-Knoxville post-doctoral researcher, and scientists at the University of Minnesota are reported in the Feb. 27 issue of Science magazine.

 Becker said the gene causes the fungus Candida albicans to produce a protein, enabling the fungus to attach to human tissue, penetrate into the bloodstream, and spread to major organs.

 Few effective drug treatments exist, Becker said, and the fungi are growing increasingly resistant to those that do.

 Finding the gene that produces the protein is the first step to improved treatment, he said.

 “What we’ve found is that the protein is involved in making the fungus pathogenic and that it may be an ideal target for treatment,” Becker said. “Hopefully, this will spur interest among drug companies to develop new drugs to combat a medical problem that has escalated in recent years.”

 Candida albicans, which can cause disorders such as yeast infections or thrush, lives in the gastrointestinal system. It is normally held in check by the immune system of healthy people.

 Not all people with weakened immune systems are seriously threatened by Candida albicans. AIDS patients’ weakened immune systems still can keep the fungus from spreading.

 However, in patients with immune systems weakened by chemotherapy or anti-rejection drugs for bone marrow or organ recipients, it causes fatal infections in the organs and deep tissue, he said.

 Contact: Dr. Jeffrey Becker (423-974-3006)