LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — One of the world’s central figures in the study of the “superbug” Candida auris is in Las Vegas to speak Saturday at the anti-aging A4M Conference at The Venetian.
The superbug — classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of five “urgent” drug-resistant health threats — recently made headlines when the Southern Nevada Health District released a list of 39 hospitals and care facilities where Candida auris (C. auris) had been found. Cases have grown 60% since August, according to information from SNHD.
Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum, Director of the Center for Medical Mycology at Case Western Reserve University, remains optimistic that science will develop methods to treat C. auris. In fact, he said in an exclusive interview on Friday there has already been progress.
C. auris, a fungus that is commonly present on human skin, can cause problems if it “colonizes” the human body. That can happen when catheters are used in medical procedures, as well as other invasive treatments used in treating hospital patients.
“When patients are in hospitals, what they do, they put catheters in them. And because of this, these bugs — or these germs — stick to the catheter. They make biofilm, which is like sticky material where it protects the germs,” Ghannoum said. “And this way, you cannot get rid of them.”
Outside the body, C. auris can survive on surfaces for up to two weeks.
But he emphasized that people should not avoid going to the hospital. There’s no need to live in fear of C. auris. Simple steps like thoroughly washing your hands goes a long way toward preventing the spread of fungus. Hospitals follow strict disinfectant procedures in patient treatment.
Research has shown that not all varieties of C. auris are multi-drug resistant. Work continues into how to kill the fungus when it’s on skin.
Ghannoum has pioneered research on fungi and sees a big upside to research that is now combining the understanding of bacteria and fungi — and their roles in gut health.
“I think in the coming five to 10 years, we are going to change the way we take care of ourselves based on this research,” Ghannoum said.
Ghannoum, an energetic 72-year-old who talks about his love of taking walks and playing with his border collie, was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. His research on fungi began in England, and he spent time at the UCLA School of Medicine and the American University of Kuwait. Since then, he has received funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to study biofilm and the role of fungi in human health. Now, he and his son are working together in a company called BIOHM, which they started in 2017.
A recent announcement of a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of NIH indicates Ghannoum will lead a team at Case Western and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center to “evaluate and enhance an antifungal drug developed by the New Jersey-based biotech company, SCYNEXIS.”
Ghannoum lives in Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb, with his wife of 46 years. He enjoys being around his grandchildren there, he said.
Candida fungus isn’t something new. It’s associated with thrush, a common oral infection. But Ghannoum has expanded the medical community’s understanding of Candida with work that led to the identification of about 100 species that are present in the human oral cavity.
C. auris came on the scene in 2009, identified in a patient in Japan who had an ear infection.
As the knowledge around C. auris grew and the CDC classified it as an urgent concern in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“Now, of course, COVID is the main focus. And it is not a surprise because, you know, remember how many people died with this disease,” he said. “By having COVID, you are exposed to fungal infections, believe it or not.
“COVID patients all over the world, because they are immunocompromised — remember, their immunity is down,” Ghannoum said. “This gives the opportunity for fungus to cause infection. A lot of COVID patients have been infected with Candida auris.”
Unlike bacteria, which can cause an infection anytime, fungi need an opportunity to create an infection. That opportunity often comes as the result of another serious health problem.
Ghannoum said the same practices that we used to control the spread of COVID are helpful against C. auris. Along with washing hands and disinfecting surfaces, he said changing bedding is important.
He notes that the medical field shouldn’t have a strict reliance on antibiotics when there’s an infection. If the infection doesn’t respond to an antibiotic, the reflex has been to try another antibiotic. Ghannoum said doctors should instead consider whether it might be a fungal infection.
This weekend, he is at The Venetian to speak on the presence of fungi, and how both bacteria and fungi affect human health. The A4M Conference bills itself as “Longevity Fest 2022.”