I obtained a BSc (Hons) in Microbiology from UNSW in 2000, before going on to complete a PhD in Molecular Genetics in 2005 under the supervision of Prof. Ian Dawes. I then moved to the world-renowned Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG) at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland where I worked as a postdoctoral research fellow with Profs. Neil Gow and Al Brown. During my postdoctoral years, my research focussed on fungal call wall structure and biosynthesis, with a particular interest in the regulation of chitin synthesis during the growth of Candida albicans, as well as the immune recognition of fungal cell wall components, and C. albicans stress responses. I set up my own group in the AFG in 2012 upon the receipt of a New Investigator award from the Medical Research Council (UK), and in 2017, returned to UNSW as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences.
My research activities are focussed on translating my love of basic fungal cell biology into innovative solutions to address the urgent clinical need for novel diagnostics and therapeutic strategies to combat invasive fungal infections. I am the convenor of the Eukaryotic Microbes Special Interest Group (SIG) and co-convenor of the Gut Microbes SIG of the Australian Society for Microbiology (ASM), a member of ASM NSW/ACT branch committee, an editorial board member of The Cell Surface and review grants for Australian and UK funding bodies.
Opportunistic invasive fungal pathogens cause over two million life-threatening infections per year worldwide, with mortality ranging from 20–95%. The number of deaths per year is greater than those attributed to either malaria, or breast cancer or prostate cancer. Bloodstream infections caused by Candida species (candidaemia) are the most frequent life-threatening invasive fungal infections, with the majority caused by one species, Candida albicans.
C. albicans colonises the gut of most healthy individuals but does not usually cause serious disease because the physical barriers between our gut and the bloodstream, combined with our immune defences and the suppressive powers of the indigenous gut microbiota, prevent these infections. However, this opportunistic pathogen can cause serious, life-threatening disseminated disease when these barriers and defences are compromised (e.g. seriously ill patients in the ICU, during cancer chemotherapy or immunotherapy, organ/stem cell transplantation, or when the gut microbiota is disturbed), which renders us vulnerable to infections from the C. albicans that colonises our gut. Despite the availability of antifungal drugs, over 40% of these systemic infections are fatal in certain patient groups. There is an urgent clinical need for the development of diagnostics and new therapies for invasive candidiasis which research in my group aims to address in innovative ways.
Cell wall structure and biosynthesis. I have been studying the cell and molecular biology of C. albicans for over 18 years and have developed specific expertise in the biosynthesis of the C. albicans cell wall and its structure. My postdoctoral research was focussed on the regulation of the synthesis of chitin, an essential structural polysaccharide found in the cell wall almost all pathogenic fungi, but is not found in humans, and so represents an attractive target for antifungal drugs. Utilising state-of-the-art imaging techniques, I have investigated the precise ultrastructure of the C. albicans cell wall. These methods include high pressure freezing/freeze substitution, transmission electron microscopy and electron tomography. Determining precisely how the cell wall components are arranged, and how their arrangement changes as cells encounter different conditions, has informed the understanding of the innate and adaptive immune responses to fungi.
Gut fungi. Utilising a novel in vitro system which mimics conditions in the human colon, projects in this area are aimed at advancing our understanding of the mechanisms by which C. albicans adapts to and evolves in a key host niche, how this adaptation can be compromised by natural bacterial and fungal components of certain healthy GI microbiotas, and how this can be exploited to prevent C. albicans infections arising from the GI tract. Projects are also aimed at generating a better understanding of composition and functional role of the entire fungal component of the GI microbiota.
Development of antifungal polymers. In collaboration with Prof. Cyrille Boyer in the School of Chemical Sciences and Engineering at UNSW, a library of polymers which resemble antimicrobial peptides with antifungal activity has been synthesised, tested and optimised. With collaborators at the Hans Knoell Institute in Jena, Germany, the mode of action of these new antifungal polyacrylamides is being investigated.
Cell division and septation in fungi. Drawing largely on my expertise in fungal cell wall biology, I have investigated the fundamental process of septation with a view to undermining cell division as an attractive way to conquer disease by pharmacological intervention. Projects in this area were aimed at understanding how chitin is synthesised at septation sites and how this process is regulated.
Antibody-based therapies and diagnostics for fungal infections. Antibodies that recognise components of the fungal cell surface may provide bio-tools for the development of diagnostic and therapeutic agents with utility against fungal infections. They may also provide a much-needed alternative to the current inadequate range of chemical-based antifungal drugs. Projects in this area were aimed at demonstrating the therapeutic and diagnostic utility of monoclonal antibodies which recognise fungal cell wall polysaccharides.
My Research Supervision
BABS3061 Medical Biotechnology - course coordinator
BABS3021/MICR3261 Microbial Genetics - lecturer
MICR2011 Microbiology 1 - lecturer
BABS2011 Current Trends in Biotechnology - lecturer
BABS1202 Applied Biomolecular Sciences - lecturer
MFAC1524 Health Maintenance B - lecturer
Sebastian Schaefer - PhD candidate (co-supervisor with Prof. Cyrille Boyle, Chemical Engineering.)
Bianca Briscas - Honours 2021, PhD candidate
Harry Tiernan - Honours 2022
Dennie Xie - Honours 2022-23
Dennie Xie - Research Internship 2022
Reeva Nadkar, Honours 2021
Cherie Chen - Honours 2021
Leah Robins - Research Internship 2021
Logan Ho - Honours 2020-21
Richard Liang - Honours 2020-21
Reeva Nadkar - Research Internship 2020
Caitlin Bartie - TSP mentee 2020
Lisa Yang - Honours 2018
Emily Griffiths - Honours 2018
Matthew Prokop - Research Internship 2018, Honours 2018, PhD candidate 2020-2022