Professor Hung and reserach team. Photo courtesy of UTSA

Anti-fungal vaccine underway

Chiung-Yu Hung, assistant professor of biology at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), and her research team received a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to support their attempt in creating a vaccine for fungal infections.

“We applied to the grant because this fungi causes a very severe disease,” said Hung, when asked why she applied for the grant. “It affects a lot of people living in the endemic area that’s around West Texas to the Pacific Side which includes New Mexico, Arizona and California … the NIH [National Institute of Health] believes we have a good chance of success.” 

Fungi can live in the air, soil, water and plants. When harmful fungi invade the body, they become difficult to kill due to their ability to survive the environment and re-infect their hosts. Fungal infections are common throughout the natural world. 

Unlike bacteria or viruses, there is currently no vaccine available for any type of fungal infection. Fungi organisms are far more complex than bacteria or viruses, which makes developing an effective vaccine to battle these infections difficult. 

“Fungal infections are difficult to treat,” Hung said. “We study why fungal pathogens can cause diseases and how our immune system defends against fungal infections. We also conduct translational research to create novel vaccines against fungal infections, to produce rapid diagnosis tools and to develop better and effective antifungal drugs.”

Hung’s work focuses on, Coccidioides, a fungus that exists in the soil of Southwest Texas, Southern Arizona, New Mexico and California. People living in these areas, and those who travel to these demographic areas, are likely to be exposed to this fungus. When the soil is disturbed by animals or humans, the fungal spores are released into the air, causing a respiratory infection called Valley Fever. 

“These demographic areas are very popular for retirees, there are many military training camps located in these areas and has become a popular area to move into,” Hung said. “These people have a chance to be exposed to this fungus living in this environment. When the soil is disturbed, fungal spores are released and are able to establish themselves in humans which then cause the disease. For those newcomers, they are not prepared for this fungus and can become infected.”

Without proper treatment, the fungus can spread throughout the body and potentially spread to the central nervous system, where it could cause meningitis, a potentially fatal condition. 

Hung’s goal is to stop these infections before they occur by developing what could be the first anti-fungal vaccine. With this grant, Hung and her team have the ability to be able to reach that goal.

“If we can come up with a product for clinical trials for the future and then administer it to the general public, then we can improve the health of people living in these areas,” Hung said. 

Hung obtained her Ph.D in biological sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and studied fungal diseases under Dr. Gary Cole, a well known medical mycologist. After spending a few years conducting research together, Hung was put on Cole’s research faculty and assisted him in the lab. After following him to UTSA in 2005, Hung was put in charge of Cole’s research after he retired. Hung is also a member of the UTSA South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. She is one of many researchers specializing in the study of vaccine development, biodefense, immunology and molecular microbiology. 

Currently, her research team consists of Althea Campuzano, a Ph.D postdoctoral fellow; Yu-Rou Liao, an MS associate scientist; Courtney McMahon, a Ph.D student; Komali Pentakota, a master’s degree student; and Carlos Espinosa, a master’s degree student. 

If you are interested in participating in Hung’s research, please email her at chiungyu.hung@utsa.edu. 

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