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Lopez-Ribot receives award for fungus research (6-13-01)

Jose Lopez-Ribot, Pharm.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC), has received the 2001 Burroughs Wellcome Fund New Investigator Award in Molecular Pathogenic Mycology.

The award provides $210,000 over a three-year period. The goal of the award program is to foster development and productivity of scientists who will bring new ways of thinking and new experimental approaches to the study of disease-causing fungi. Fungal infections pose a serious and growing health hazard and, collectively, they are a major cause of death worldwide.

Dr. Lopez-Ribot, who is working in the new South Texas Centers for Biology in Medicine in the Texas Research Park, is focusing on candida albicans, an opportunistic pathogenic fungus that can cause a variety of infections in a growing population of at-risk patients.

"An important factor contributing to the increase in candidiasis (infection with candida) in recent years has been the widespread use of medical implant devices such as catheters, prostheses, artificial valves and joints, and dentures," Dr. Lopez-Ribot said. "These devices provide the necessary surfaces for biofilm formation and now are responsible for a significant percentage of clinical candidiasis."

According to Dr. Lopez-Ribot, cells living in biofilms (layers of cells that accumulate on such devices once they're inside the body) have traits that are dramatically different from their counterparts elsewhere in the environment. For example, they are more resistant to antimicrobial agents and protection from host defenses.

"One of projects in my laboratory strives to better understand the C. albicans biofilm lifestyle," he said. "By achieving a better understanding of C. albicans biofilms, we hope to be able to develop strategies for the elimination and/or prevention of biofilm-associated infections that should lead to a substantial reduction in morbidity and mortality in these patients."

According to Burroughs Wellcome, safe and effective antifungal drugs remain scarce, and common fungal pathogens are becoming increasingly resistant to available drugs. Physicians have seen a rise in the number of people whose immune systems have been compromised by infectious diseases or drug therapies, leaving them susceptible to fungal attack.

Many fungi once considered benign now have been implicated in causing disease. Compared to other disease agents, fungal pathogens have been relatively neglected as targets for basic research, the company says.

Contact: Natalie Gutierrez