The mere mention of the word Candida can bring many people to the brink of disgust. The term refers to Candida albicans, a normally harmless fungal species in healthy individuals with a balanced microbial ecology. Yet, when disruptions in the nature of our microbial population occur, as a result of infection, antibiotic use, or dysbiosis, this species of yeast can turn against us. At this point, this innocuous entity may cause a number of conditions ranging from skin, oral and genital infections to invasion of the bloodstream leading the life-threatening septicemia.
For decades, researchers have worked to understand the basis of Candida infection and to learn how it morphs from friend to foe. In 2001, a possible answer was suggested. For many opportunistic pathogens, the ability to form living colonies, better known as biofilms, could facilitate the onset of infection. Several years earlier, Candida was shown to be able to form these structures in the environment but no one had looked inside the body.
By 2009, the biofilm hypothesis was proven and forced scientists to find the mechanism behind the formation of these complex microbial structures. Eventually, the process was elucidated although the information was rather disconcerting. The fungus was incredibly opportunistic, taking advantage of any breaks in the human barrier system to find a nice place to settle and eventually grow. For skin, this process was simple to understand; breaks could lead to colonization and resultant consequences. But internally, infections required a reduction in the most important barrier we have: mucus.
For most people, mucus is considered to be a bad thing. It's commonly associated with respiratory infections as well as more chronic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, ulcerative colitis, and even cancer. But, this thick composite is an integral part of our anatomy, providing both lubrication and protection to internal cells exposed to the environment. Without mucus, we would simply be dry on the inside leading to significant problems with breathing, eating and intimacy.
A closer look at the molecular level of mucus unveils a number of different proteins, known as mucins. There are over two dozen types, each serving a particular function in the body. The amount of mucins in the body is usually carefully balanced although aberrations can occur. If there is too much, the potential for problems such as respiratory illness can occur. When there is too little, the immune system can become deficient and susceptible to infection.
Research into the involvement of mucus in Candida infection has since revealed its importance in preventing an attack as a barrier. However, it is not a perfect system. Candida has a mechanism to break down some mucins such that they can no longer stop an invasion and resultant biofilm production. But no one knew exactly which ones were affected or, if some of these mucoid proteins could resist the attack.
Now that has changed. Last week, a group of American researchers revealed how a particular mucin type, known as mucin 5, subtypes A and C (MUC5AC) can not only inhibit biofilm formation but also keep the fungus from causing undue harm.
The team looked at a number of different mucin types, including mucin 2 (MUC2), mucin 5, subtype B (MUC5B) and mucin 5, subtypes A and C (MUC5AC). The methods were straightforward; they took cultures of C. albicans and introduced them to a polystyrene surface as well as intestinal cells. In one set of experiments, they introduced one of the mucins into the environment. Over 48 hours, the fungus was observed under the microscope to determine if there were any chances in the nature of the cells.
Although MUC2 and MUC5B were not particularly effective, MUC5AC not only stopped the cells from turning into mold-like structures, but also prevented them from attaching to surfaces and intestinal cell thus preventing the formation of biofilms. At the genetic level the mucin also inhibited the expression of factors known to be involved in disease. All told, the researchers had found a natural means to prevent Candida from causing problems.
Despite the promising results, there was a problem. MUC5AC is produced in only two areas of the body, the stomach and the lungs. These are not areas where Candida is known to cause infections. However, the results suggest the protein may provide an avenue for the development of anti-Candida alternatives to disinfectants and antifungal agents. This means future work can concentrate on ways to produce and provide MUC5AC as possibly a prophylaxis and treatment.
In the meantime, one of the best ways to help maintain a healthy mucus balance is to take probiotics. In laboratory studies, certain good strains of bacteria such as Lactobacillus have been shown to help balance the amount of mucus produced in the body. In addition, probiotics work with mucins including MUC5A to ensure an anti-inflammatory environment. This not only helps to keep the body balanced, it can also keep Candida from becoming a health threat.
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