Mycology and immunology researchers from The University of Texas at San Antonio have been selected to receive a five-year, $6.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a San Antonio-based Coccidioidomycosis Collaborative Research Center (SA-CCRC) focused on developing therapeutics and vaccines against coccidioidomycosis. This highly interactive, interdisciplinary research hub will support the collaborative efforts of investigators from UTSA and UT Health San Antonio.
“The award is a testament to the caliber of the mycology research group and the established expertise in innovative solutions for vaccine development against infectious diseases at UTSA,” said Bernard Arulanandam, UTSA vice president for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise.
Coccidioidomycosis, also known as valley fever, is a respiratory fungal infection found in the Southwestern United States and some aerial regions in Central and South America. Infection occurs by breathing in microscopic spores from the air in environments where the fungus Coccidioides resides.
There are an estimated 380,000 new cases in the U.S. each year. This fungal infection can lead to a broad spectrum of disorders, from self-limited flu-like symptoms to progressive pulmonary destruction and life-threatening meningitis if dissemination occurs.
The SA-CCRC will support applied clinical research and will also house an extended network of experts and collaborators from partnering institutions across the nation. Members of the center will include seasoned investigators with knowledge and technical expertise in coccidioidomycosis as well as emerging researchers attracted to this area of medical mycology.
Chiung-Yu Hung, associate professor in the UTSA Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, is a research expert in the field of Coccidioides. Her experience ranges from the development of therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines against Coccidioides infections. She has also used multidisciplinary approaches, including molecular biology, cellular biology and immunological techniques to study host-pathogen interactions.
“Currently there is no FDA-approved vaccine against this respiratory fungal infection and approximately one-third of clinical isolates of Coccidioides species display in vitro resistance to commonly used antifungal drugs such as fluconazole,” Hung said. “There is an urgent and unmet need to develop better and safe therapeutic drugs and a human vaccine to prevent this fungal disease that can sometimes spread beyond the lungs to other vital organs including the skin, bone, liver, heart and brain.”
“Dr. Hung, along with the team she has assembled, exemplifies how UTSA researchers are tackling real-world challenges to meet an ever-growing critical need,” Arulanandam added.
Hung will lead a research team in the center that seeks to develop a human vaccine with recombinant antigen and mRNA technologies. The team will study protective immunity measures against coccidioidomycosis. Joining Hung is Jose Lopez-Ribot, a faculty member in the UTSA College of Sciences with more than 30 years of experience in the field of medical mycology and co-PI of the NIH grant.
“San Antonio has a rich tradition of excellence in the study of fungal infections, with a large and highly cooperative group of medical mycologists,” Lopez-Ribot said. “We are honored to have been selected by NIH to establish this collaborative Center to advance research and treatment, and to train the next generation of scientists on these devastating infections.”
The center’s members will include faculty members Astrid Cardona, Brian Hermann, Soo-Chan Lee, Karl Klose, Stephen Saville, Yufeng Wang and Jieh-Juen Yu from UTSA; Thomas F. Patterson and Nathan Wiederhold from UT Health San Antonio; George Thompson from UC Davis; and Gary Ostroff from the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.
“We have worked with Lopez-Ribot and Hung on developing new treatments for coccidioidomycosis and look forward to continuing this important collaboration,” said Patterson, professor and chief of infectious diseases in the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio. Patterson is also the director of the San Antonio Center for Medical Mycology.
“Coccidioidomycosis is an important fungal pathogen in the U.S. Southwest including San Antonio, and can cause devastating infections, including meningitis, that currently require lifelong therapy,” Patterson added. “Wiederhold and his colleagues in the Fungus Testing Laboratory at UT Health San Antonio have shown that resistance of Coccidioides to frequently used antifungal medications is common, so that development of new therapies and approaches such as vaccines are critically needed.”