31 May 2018 Photo Anja Aucamp
Microbiology department receives Research Chair in Pathogenic Yeasts Prof Carlien Pohl-Albertyn
Prof Carlien Pohl-Albertyn, Professor in the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology

The National Research Foundation (NRF) recently approved a fifth research chair for the University of the Free State (UFS), the Research Chair in Pathogenic Yeasts. Prof Carlien Pohl-Albertyn from the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, will be chairing this research chair. 

Activities of the Research Chair in Pathogenic Yeasts builds on existing research strengths and will contribute towards understanding pathobiology of medically significant pathogenic yeasts belonging to the genera Candida and Cryptococcus. 

According to Prof Pohl-Albertyn, the research group, established in 2014, is the only one in South African focusing on understanding the role of bioactive lipids in host-pathogen interaction as well as in the search for novel drug targets. The group brought together three principal investigators, Prof Pohl-Albertyn, Prof Koos Albertyn and Dr Olihile Sebolai, with knowledge regarding various virulence factors (including immunomodulatory metabolites) produced by the Candida and Cryptococcus as well as molecular biology of yeasts. Besides the three principal investigators, the group also includes five PhD students, nine MSc students, four BSc honours students as well as two postdoctoral fellows. 

Current projects of the group include the production of immunomodulatory compounds by the yeasts, finding novel targets for antifungal drugs and the interaction between the yeasts and different hosts using a variety of infection models. In addition, the interaction between pathogenic yeasts and other co-infecting pathogens is also being investigated. 

Why research on fungal infections?
“As a result of presently used treatments for diseases and HIV/Aids, and the advances in medical interventions, many diseases no longer pose a threat to humans and life expectancy is prolonged. However, this has also caused an increase in various opportunistic infections, and most of all, fungal infections.

“With an increase in the number of individuals sensitive to invasive fungal infections, yeasts have begun to be reported more frequently as pathogens (yeasts that can cause disease). Infections by pathogenic yeasts affect a wide variety of patients. Although most of them are immunosuppressed (including HIV positive) other underlying conditions may predispose people to such infections. These include extremes of age (premature infants and the elderly), diabetes, cancer and cystic fibroses. In addition, patients hospitalised in intensive care units, as well as patients undergoing major abdominal or thoracic surgery are at high risk of invasive candidiasis. Similarly, HIV/Aids, liver cirrhosis and immunosuppressive therapy are known risk factors for invasive cryptococcosis,” said Prof Pohl-Albertyn.

According to her an important hurdle in the treatment of invasive yeast infection is the emergence of drug resistance in these pathogens. Therefore, research into pathobiology, including new drug targets, as well as novel treatment options, is a necessity. 

In line with the UFS research strategy
The NRF call for research chairs, specifically aimed at female researchers at universities that currently have fewer than 15 research chairs, came out in May 2017.

The university considers the current SARChi Chairs and the possibility of future chairs as an integral and strategic initiative to increase its national and international standing through excellent academic and research leadership. A Research Chair in Pathogenic Yeasts is therefore an invaluable addition to the UFS Research Strategy. 

The Research Chair is for five years, and is renewable for three terms.

Microbiology from University of the Free State on Vimeo.

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