Grant success for MBI researcher in the PhD partnership program

11 May 2021
The PhD Partnership Program provides funding to support PhD candidates to gain skills and undertake projects that will build capacity in the NSW Health system.
Associate Professor Julianne Djordevic’s project entitled Developing inhibitors of fungal inositol polyphosphate kinases as a novel class of antifungal drug , has been funded ,and will allow her PhD student Desmarini Desmarini to work alongside industry partner, Biodiem, a subsidiary of Opal Biosciences Australia, who will provide mentoring and engagement with external industry.

Fungal Infections of the blood stream (fungal sepsis) pose a serious threat to human health affecting 300 million people and causing >1.5 million deaths annually, which is similar to deaths from tuberculosis and malaria. The cost to the community and health system is ~2.6 billion/annum in the USA alone. In an Australian haematology unit, it was estimated that treatment of infections due to Candida albicans and Aspergillus fumigatus costs $186,000/patient (~$1.1 million/year). Fungal infections are common in individuals with poorly functioning immune systems. These include HIV/AIDS patients, blood cancer patients and organ transplant recipients. Illness and death from these infections is due mainly to the side effects of the current therapies, their inability to kill all types of fungal infection and drug resistance. As fungal infections thrive in warmer climates, their prevalence is expected to increase with climate change. For example in 2002, an outbreak of Cryptococcus infection occurred on Vancouver Island Canada, which experiences a temperate climate

Fungal infections have caused major die-offs in plants including food crops, forcing overuse of antifungals to sustain our food supply. Azoles are the most heavily used class of antifungal in agriculture and the clinic. It is thought that increased widespread azole fungicide use in agriculture (causing resistance to develop in soil fungi that infect humans), coupled with prolonged azole treatment courses in the clinic, have driven the emergence of “secondary” resistance and worryingly, cross-resistance amongst azole drugs.

This project addresses an unmet global medical need by investigating a new fungal drug target. Current drugs only target a single cellular function and resistance is emerging. We propose to develop a new drug class with a different mode of action and a disruptive effect on more than one cellular function. New, more effective and/or less toxic drug classes will reduce the huge socioeconomic burden associated with these infections.

Commercial opportunities. The capability of an Australian Biotech company like Opal BioSciences to bring the inhibitors developed in this project to market will provide revenue to the NSW and Australian economy and reduce medical costs not only in Australia, but globally, by reducing hospitalization stay times and illness and death associated with these infections.

The PhD Partnership scholarship will also provide training to a new generation of researchers who understand both academic and industry imperatives in drug development. Such future leaders will be an invaluable resource to Australia, with the potential for a more informed, efficient and productive career pathway than is the case at present.