I recently went to a talk titled ‘Fantastic yeasts and where to find them’ by Professor Matthew Fisher of Imperial College London. It was part of the first ever Great Exhibition Road Festival in London. As it was a science festival, I expected to learn how yeasts can be used in scientific discovery and various applications.
Yet, the talk started with an apocalyptic description of the situation in the frog world. A fatal infectious disease called chytridiomycosis has been decimating frog populations across the globe. The disease was caused by chytrid fungi and first discovered in 1993. Scientists have warned of risk of mass extinction as the fungi have spread across Australia, Europe and the Americas.
A recent study published on Science in March 2019 shows the alarming damage done by chytrid fungi. They have recorded declines of at least 501 amphibian species, or about 1 out of every 16 known to science. 90 species have become extinct in the wild and another 124 species have declined in number by more than 90%.
Scientists believe that the deadly fungi probably emerged in Asia between 50 and 120 years ago. Humans are unwittingly spreading the pathogen around the world with the rise of global trade. It is easy for small frogs to hide out in produce transported by sea. These fungi have damaged global biodiversity more than any other disease ever recorded.
With all this in mind, it was alarming when the speaker then talked about a fungus that could cause serious infection among human beings. The fungus is called Candida auris, which was first identified in 2009. It is usually acquired in hospitals by patients with weakened immune systems. C. auris infections have been reported in over 30 countries. It is likely that such infection has gone unreported in several other countries.
There are three reasons that the US health protection agency (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC) is particularly concerned about this fungus: (1) It is often multidrug-resistant; (2) It is difficult to identify with standard laboratory methods; and (3) It has caused outbreaks in healthcare centres.
Prevention and disease control are of utmost importance to combat these kinds of infectious diseases. Preventative care is a key focus in WHEB’s Health theme. Preventative care not only helps to improve quality of life but also typically reduces overall health care costs. Portfolio company Steris is an industry leader in providing sterilisation and microbial reduction services to hospitals and other healthcare providers. Ecolab is another investment which provides innovative solutions for environmental hygiene in a hospital setting.
CDC recommends family members and healthcare workers to wash their hands properly to stop the spread of C. auris. Unfortunately, studies show that healthcare providers clean their hands less than half as much as they should. Ecolab helps to tackle this problem through its Hand Hygiene Program. It not only sells hand hygiene products, but it also provides bespoke solutions and on-site consultation as well as electronic solutions for hygiene monitoring.
As is the case of C. auris infection, rapid diagnosis is important for effective disease control. We invest in a number of companies which provide solutions and equipment to speed up life sciences research, solve complex analytical challenges and improve patient diagnostics. Thermo Fisher provides analytical equipment and assay kits to facilitate a real-time approach for direct detection of C. auris. Agilent develops bioanalysers to assess the quality and quantity of Ribonucleic acid (RNA) samples in the process of RNA extraction and sequencing analysis, which helps scientists to understand the drug resistance of C. auris.
During the talk, I was moved by the wholehearted dedication of scientists. They have endured challenging environments in remote forests for weeks to gather chytrid fungi samples. We should all be grateful for what scientists have done in these areas. They help us understand this world better and protect the environment and society from such potential threats. It is also satisfying to see that a number of WHEB’s investee companies are at the forefront of providing innovative solutions and products to help tackle these significant challenges.