University of Toronto
The dangers of antimicrobial drug resistance and the emergence of “superbugs” are well known in hospitals. Dr. Leah Cowen is focusing on drug-resistant fungi—a deadly threat that is largely unappreciated, but affects tens of millions of people worldwide and cannot be treated with our limited arsenal of antifungal drugs.
Overcoming microbial drug resistance not only requires designing new drugs but also gaining a better understanding of how resistance develops in the first place. Dr. Cowen, Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Infectious Disease, is using specialized genomics technology to examine the survival strategies that fungal pathogens exploit to become resistant to drugs and to cause human disease.
Fungi naturally occur in the air and soil but they can be extremely harmful to humans and other animals, as well as plants. Like bacteria, they can prey on people whose immune systems are compromised by HIV infection, chemotherapy or cancer, causing skin infections or flu-like symptoms that can result in hospitalization or even death.
Fungal diseases have a devastating impact on plants, agriculture, and wildlife. They are responsible for the Irish potato famine by late blight, and destruction of forests by Dutch elm blight. Fungal pathogens are major agriculture pests that result in crop losses costing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. They are also causing rapid extinctions of frog species worldwide.
Dr. Cowen’s research is already uncovering new ways to improve our self-defence against these opportunistic invaders. In one study, she discovered that inhibiting protective proteins called molecular chaperones can make pathogens more responsive to treatment. Her approach could also help combat diseases such as malaria and cancer.
It’s no wonder Dr. Cowen’s research is attracting such interest globally: over 2,400 citations; 54 papers in high-impact journals; and more than 65 conference presentations. Her work has also won several awards, including the Grand Challenges Canada Star in Global Health, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation Early Research Award, the Merck Irving S. Sigal Memorial Award, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences.
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