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Images of Cryptococcus neoformans taken in the course of Texas A&M biologist Xiaorong Lin's research show silver-stained Cryptococcus cells -- indicated in black -- in mouse lung tissue (above) and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) picture of the yeast cells (below). (Credit: Xiaorong Lin, Texas A&M University.)

COLLEGE STATION --

Texas A&M University biologist Xiaorong Lin draws from ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" to explain the mission of her research on fungal pathogens: "If you want to win the battle," she says, "you have to know not only yourself, but also the enemy."

On the public relations front, it's a deceptive foe. Fungi have beneficial uses and are responsible for many of life's edible conveniences, including mushrooms, bread, beer and wine. Also, most people's experience with fungal infections is superficial, ranging from dandruff to athlete's foot. But these facts mask a troubling one, says Lin, an assistant professor in the Texas A&M Department of Biology: The fungal pathogen she studies, Cryptococcus neoformans, is lethal, causing nearly 625,000 deaths a year worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lin and her research group are working to glean basic details about C. neoformans, along with one other fungal pathogen, Aspergillus fumigatus, so that life-saving treatments could one day be possible. Lin recently received a boost as one of 10 national recipients of a prestigious award that brings with it $500,000 in research funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

"Even those superficial infections on the skin are hard to cure," Lin says. "Now imagine if the fungus is growing inside a human body. The problem is, we don't have good drugs to target fungal infections. You want a drug that's going to kill those pathogens specifically but isn't toxic to the host cells. That's one of the areas we are working on."

Lin says it's tricky to target fungi inside the human body without harming the host cell because fungi, in terms of evolutionary distance at the cellular level, are more closely related to humans than they are to plants. Unlike with bacteria, which are more different than humans, targeting fungi without inflicting more severe side effects poses a greater challenge, Lin notes.

"I believe that, in general, infectious diseases are one of the most important things we need to study as a human race, because along with nuclear war, they pose the greatest threat to our existence," Lin says. "Fungal infections are just one type of infectious disease, but they are understudied, and the research is under-funded."

And, Lin says, there's a lack of interest from pharmaceutical companies. Chronic diseases saddle their victims with issues requiring long-term medication and care. But infectious diseases call for comparatively short bouts of medication before the patient -- if the treatment is effective -- recovers and stops using it.

"So the profit incentive doesn't exist for pharmaceutical companies," Lin says. "That's why it's so important for the government and private foundations like Burroughs Wellcome to support this kind of research."

Lin says it was Texas A&M's reputation regarding the study of fungal pathogens that attracted her to the university in 2008. Specifically, she was drawn to the Program for the Biology of Filamentous Fungi, which essentially is a collection of the department's faculty members who are studying various fungal species and aspects of fungal biology.

"I had choices about where I wanted to go, but this was one of the best places I wanted to be because of its work on fungal biology," she says.

Lin's work already is moving the field forward. Her laboratory was the first to identify adhesion proteins, which allow for microbes to bond with other cells, in C. neoformans. The breakthrough is key because adhesion proteins on other microbes have been developed into vaccines. Backed by a National Institutes of Health grant, she is further exploring her discovery and investigating the possibility of developing such a vaccine for the deadly disease.

"That's an important drive for us," Lin says.

Lin's path to her current research wasn't conventional. She earned her undergraduate and master's degrees in chemical engineering before realizing she was interested in fungal development. She then earned her doctorate in biology in 2003 from the University of Georgia, then completed postdoctoral research at Duke University Medical Center prior to joining the Texas A&M Biology faculty.

"Just because you started down one path doesn't mean you have to stay on that track," Lin says. "You can always change."

For more information about Lin's research, visit http://www.bio.tamu.edu/users/xlin/index.html.

Click here to learn more about Lin's recent award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

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About 12 Impacts of the 12th Man: 12 Impacts of the 12th Man is an ongoing series throughout the year highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students, faculty, staff and former students on their community, state, nation and world. To learn more about the series and see additional impacts, visit http://12thman.tamu.edu/.

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-aTm-

Contact: Vimal Patel, (979) 845-7246 or vpatel@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Xiaorong Lin, (979) 845-7274 or xrlin@tamu.edu

Patel Vimal

  • Xiaorong Lin

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