Cryptococcosis researcher in the lab
Cryptococcosis is a potentially fatal fungal infection. It is a major cause of deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in people also infected with HIV.
Our researchers’ goal is to develop new treatments that prevent deaths from cryptococcosis.

Cryptococcosis research at WEHI

Our research into cryptococcosis aims to develop new treatments for this fungal disease. Our research foci are:

  • Discovery of new anti-fungal agents that inhibit the production of fungal molecules essential for Cryptococcus.
  • Understanding how persistent Cryotococcus infections are tolerated, and developing strategies to incite immune clearance of the fungus.

What is cryptococcosis?

Cryptococcosis is a disease caused by infection with the fungus Cryptococcus. It is potentially fatal, particularly in people with a weakened immune system.

The Cryptococcus fungus is present in the environment, particularly in areas contaminated with bird droppings. It can infect skin and wounds. The most common way Cryptococcus infects humans is by being inhaled.

When Cryptococcus is inhaled, it can grow within the lungs. In some people this causes a slowly developing lung disease. Within the lungs, immune cells called macrophages can also be infected. The Cryptococcus cells can survive and divide within macrophages.

Cryptococcus lung infections can lie dormant for months to years. The infection can also spread to other parts of the body. This is more likely to occur in people with a weakened immune system.

In the brain, Cryptococcus infection causes cryptococcal meningitis. This is a serious inflammatory disease that can cause:

  • Confusion and hallucinations
  • Brain damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Hydrocephalus (accumulation of fluid on the brain)
  • Coma

Untreated cryptococcal meningitis is fatal in an estimated 30 to 70 per cent of people.

More than 180,000 people die from cryptococcosis every year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the leading cause of death in people with HIV and AIDS in this region.

Cryptococcosis risk factors

Severe Cryptococcus infections, especially cryptococcal meningitis, are most often associated with a weakened immune system. This is often caused by:

How is cryptococcosis treated?

Cryptococcus infections can be cured by treatment with anti-fungal agents. This often takes months to completely eliminate the infection. In people with HIV, anti-retroviral treatment that maintains immune system function can prevent cryptococcal meningitis.

Many people infected with cryptococcal infections live in resource-poor communities. Many deaths occur in people who have not been able to access appropriate treatment. Our research into cryptococcosis aims to develop more effective treatments that can be made available to all people with this infection.

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