Scientists have observed how white blood cells react to a dangerous fungus in an effort to better understand how the body fights off fungal infections.

Findings published in The Journal of Immunology describe how specific receptors on the surface of white blood cells sense a fungus and then several attach to it in order to contain the foreign organism. In addition to observing this process, the researchers from Brown University also manipulated the receptors, called integrins, turning them on and off to see how that affected the behaviors of the white blood cells. According to the team, the discovery could potentially lead to new types of therapies against fungal infections that use the body’s natural defenses, an important step in fighting rising rates of fungal infections and drug resistance.

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Brown University noted in a statement that fungal infections are particularly dangerous to people who have impaired immune systems, undergone surgery or had devices like catheters implanted.

Fungal infections could be as simple and common as a skin infection that appears as a rash, but there are many more dangerous and complex fungal infections, such as fungal meningitis. In that latter rare infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain, the protective membranes around the brain and spinal cord swell. People with weakened immune systems, like those with HIV or cancer, are more at risk, but anyone could become sick with the condition if a fungus spreads from the blood or another place in the body to their spinal cord.

The next step for the team is to further investigate how to manipulate the integrins on white blood cells in order to help fight off infection. One member of the group, medical student Courtney Johnson, said they may also discover the conditions under which the white blood cells cluster around a fungus — when the high level of the body’s immune response may ultimately damage tissue.

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Source: Reichner JS, Johnson CM, O’Brien XM, et al. Integrin Cross-Talk Regulates the Human Neutrophil Response to Fungal β-Glucan in the Context of the Extracellular Matrix: A Prominent Role for VLA3 in the Antifungal Response. The Journal of Immunology. 2016.