A University of Aberdeen academic has secured a prestigious fellowship which will enable her to lead a research project into a fungus which claims 600,000 lives every year.
Dr Elizabeth Ballou is one of 12 early-career scientists across the UK to receive a share of £300,000 in new funding from the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) as part of awards to mark its 20th anniversary.
The University of Aberdeen is one of the largest centres in the world for fungal research and is recognised globally for its expertise in the field.
Dr Ballou, who is originally from the United States, was drawn to Aberdeen by the international reputation of the group and said she was delighted that the BBSRC fellowship will now allow her to lead a three-year research project at the University into a fungus which causes an infection as deadly as tuberculosis in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
She will look into Cryptococcus neoformans,an airborne fungus that lives in the environment throughout the world. Spores can enter the lungs and cause serious infection, particularly in those with weakened immune systems, and can spread to the brain causing Cryptococcal meningitis.
Dr Ballou said: “Cryptococcus is now the most common cause of adult meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide it kills around 625,000 people every year. In those places with high infection rates it is said to be as deadly as tuberculosis*.
“It is a very serious infection to those with weakened immune systems such as people with HIV, those with autoimmune disorders, and people receiving chemotherapy or anti-rejection drugs following organ transplants.
“Cryptococcus is very drug resistant and infections can last a long time with patients receiving antibiotic treatments for more than six months.
“Despite this, little is known about how these organisms make people sick.”
The BBSRC fellowship will enable Dr Ballou to carry out new research into the mechanisms of the infection, how it develops and how it is able to last so long once in the body.
She added: “The Aberdeen Fungal Group is one of the only centres in the world to combine fungal and immunology research to develop coordinated approaches to infection control.
“I am grateful for the BBSRC funding which will enable me to take forward research into this important issue within a world-leading research environment.”
Dr Celia Caulcott, BBSRC Executive Director of Innovation & Skills said: "Our Anniversary Future Leader Fellowships enable us to develop future research leaders in areas of fundamental importance to BBSRC and UK bioscience, by providing support for their development as independent researchers.”
“In doing so, BBSRC demonstrates its continued investment in supporting the UK bioscience research base to deliver world-leading research with wide-ranging benefits for society."