On funding, fellows and fungus

Getting funding for a new research area or technique can be tough. Winning a prestigious prize can help. Find out how receiving a Lister Prize will help this researcher learn about the biology of fungal infection in the brain and better understand how the immune system deals with it.
On funding, fellows and fungus

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I set up a research group on antifungal immunity in 2018, first with the help of a University of Birmingham fellowship scheme followed by a larger Career Development Award from the Medical Research Council, one of the leading government funders of biomedical research in the UK. As my current fellowship neared its end, I decided to apply for another fellowship with the Lister Institute. Originally established in the late 1800s, the Lister Institute is a historical institution in the UK with a rich history of funding biomedical research, particularly focusing on supporting the careers of early and mid-career scientists.

I was lucky enough to become one of six new Lister Institute Fellows in 2024. Lister fellowships are awarded as prizes rather than grants, providing flexible funding that will help establish new directions of research within my group at a critical transition point.

My research is focused on better understanding the pathogenesis of fungal infections. This is a group of relatively poorly understood infections, despite their broad impact on global human health. Most fungi do not cause human disease, and humans are generally resistant to fungal infections. Yet, in the last half century there has been a large increase in the number of people who are ‘immunodeficient’, where the immune system becomes dysfunctional because of viral infection, cancer treatments or drugs used to prevent rejection of an organ transplant. It’s these patients who are at high risk of getting fungal infections, which are often difficult to treat due to limited drug options and being unable to ‘shield’ vulnerable patients from fungi that can cause infections. This is because fungi that can become potential pathogens are found everywhere in the environment.

The fungal infection that causes the most number of deaths around the world is cryptococcal meningitis, which primarily affects HIV-infected patients living in sub-Saharan Africa. This disease is caused by a yeast called Cryptococcus neoformans. In my lab, we try to understand how the immune system ‘sees’ this fungus in the brain and the genes and cell types needed to activate an effective defence against the fungus when it tries to invade the brain.

So far, we have found that the yeast C. neoformans switches on nutrient scavenging pathways only in specific areas of the brain. This leads to a heterogeneous population of yeast in the brain, where some of the fungal cells are starving of nutrients and others are not. We don’t yet know how this fungal heterogeneity might affect responses to treatment or activation of protective immunity. Intrigued by our findings, I wanted to study the biology of the fungus more and better understand why the fungus behaves as it does in different parts of the brain. I felt that by answering these questions, I could make more sense of the immune responses we were studying and identify how the host immune system influenced the behaviour of the fungus, or vice versa.

However, acquiring research funding in research areas or techniques in which you don’t yet have a publication record can be tricky. Although I have worked on antifungal immunity since I started my PhD in 2010, my research has centred on the host response and mammalian immune system. I didn’t yet have the credentials to work on the pathogen, or any other types of microbe that might be important for answering my research questions, such as viruses that commonly co-exist in patients with fungal infections.

This is where the prize fellowship from the Lister Institute has been so hugely valuable. It provides me with the flexible funds needed to start building capacity and collaborations in these other research areas, diversifying what we can achieve as a research group and achieving our long-term vision. I’m particularly excited about being able to start building collaborations with colleagues based in Africa, where this fungal infection has the biggest clinical impact.

Lastly, by becoming a Lister Fellow, I become part of something bigger. The Lister Institute has over 100 previous and current fellows from diverse fields of medicine including genomics, immunology, oncology, microbiology and cell biology. Each year, there is an annual meeting to induct new Lister fellows and stimulate conversation and collaboration. I feel privileged to be join this group of accomplished scientists, and discover how these conversations will shape our future research.

Top image is a microscopy image of a mouse brain showing blood vessels and immune cells. Image credit to Rebecca Drummond and Sofia Hain, PhD student at Drummond’s lab.

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