Combat a deadly fungal pathogen with gene-editing technology (CRISPR-Cas)…

While the public is aware of the potentially deadly pathogens invading our hospitals, such as the highly infectious agents C. difficile or drug resistant Staph aureus (MRSA), a newer and much lesser known fungal pathogen has been emerging.  This deadly, multidrug resistant organism, Candida Auris is now causing outbreaks in healthcare settings, like hospitals or long-term care facilities around the world.

Our 2018 Discovery Award recipient Dr. Rebecca Shapiro, (University of Guelph) is well positioned to uncover the genetic mysteries of this organism.  Her graduate studies dealt with understanding the genetics of fungal pathogens and a subsequent fellowship focused on the development of the research tools she now uses to edit genomes.  When starting her own lab, Shapiro realized the potential in combining both these areas of study in order to find ways to use gene editing to combat highly-infectious and drug resistant strains of fungus.

They tend to be significantly under studied compared to bacterial pathogens,” she says. “Fungi tend to be a little neglected, we don’t think about them as much, we don’t see news articles about them, but they are very significant pathogens that cause a great deal of life-threatening infections.”

Shapiro credits the Discovery Award for enabling her to start her program at the University of Guelph, allowing her “to take some of our knowledge of DNA editing tools (CRISPR-based) and apply them to C. auris as a way to better study the genetics of this organism and what makes it so deadly and what makes it resistant to antifungal drugs.”

“For us it’s about the fundamental level of developing tools we can use to study the biology of the organism.  Understanding more about this at the biological level will ultimately, we hope, help inform how we treat it,” Dr. Shapiro says of the research being done in her lab.

While lab work is currently paused during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shapiro feels that once back up and running the grant will leave them on solid footing. “We’re pursuing a lot of different angles, many of which are centered around further developing gene editing technology and pushing the boundaries of what we can do with it,” she says.

“We are now working to create systems where instead of just deleting a gene, we can actually manipulate it so we can change its expression, turn it up or down, so we express more or less of it in the cell. We’re developing a system that allows us to make smaller adjustments to the gene. So, we’re playing a lot with that, trying to develop some of these new technologies.”

Support from the Banting Research Foundation is once again helping to catalyze discovery and make it possible for Dr. Shapiro to successfully secure additional funding for her work – which could lead to breakthroughs in the fight against a deadly pathogen.