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03 December 2019

Bizarre-looking parasitic fungi that grows on insects in Far North Queensland rainforests could yield a new treatment for infectious diseases and cancer, according to AITHM natural products chemist, Dr Phurpa Wangchuk.

He has identified one species of insect fungus that produces a highly active molecule that can regulate immune response. These type of compounds, known as immune modulators, form the backbone of immunotherapy by stimulating the patient’s own immune system to battle disease.

In collaboration with AITHM immunologist, Professor Denise Doolan, compounds extracted from insect fungi are being screened in the laboratory to see whether they can stimulate or inhibit specific parts of the human immune response, before being tested in mouse models for their ability to shrink tumours.

Born and raised in Bhutan, Dr Wangchuk researched a cornucopia of traditional medicinal plants and fungi while working for the Bhutanese Ministry of Health’s Pharmaceutical and Research Unit. Upon joining AITHM in 2014, Dr Wangchuk was keen to investigate tropical insect fungi of Far North Queensland, collected by then JCU Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Dr Sandra Abell, who worked with the Australian Tropical Herbarium at JCU.

Dr Wangchuk is employing high-tech methods – mass spectrometry analyses – to identify specific molecules within the complex fungi that warrant further scientific investigation. It is challenging work, as the current supply of wild fungi samples is limited, and their chemical make-up could be altered by growing more within the laboratory.

“In the wild, fungi, like plants and insects, produce molecules to defend themselves against predators and competitors. When you grow them in the laboratory (using an agar nutrient solution), often you lose that activity, so it is challenging to obtain these bioactive molecules within lab conditions,” he observed.

The stakes are high. Apart from producing potential drug candidates to treat infectious diseases or cancer, Dr Wangchuk’s research has revealed that insect fungi may also harbour promising adjuvants – substances used to activate the immune system to enhance the effectiveness of vaccines against a range of diseases.

He hopes his findings will attract funding to accelerate his own research as well as other projects to identify and harvest the health benefits of Far North Queensland’s rich biodiversity.

“We have huge natural resources – plants, fungi – that compare with the Amazon in Brazil,” he said. “We need to explore those natural resources for the benefit of mankind.”

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