Researchers in a race to unravel mysteries of fungus at heart of NJ outbreak

With the number of people infected with the deadly fungus Candida auris on the rise in New Jersey and across the country, researchers in New Jersey and elsewhere are studying why the mutated strain of the organism involved in the cases doesn’t respond to commonly used cleaners and medications that treat fungal infections.

“It’s dangerous because it can move from person to person,” said Kelley Healey, an assistant professor of biology at William Paterson University. “It can also persist on surfaces for long periods of time, so on the bench top or on door handles.”

The state Department of Health says that as of Sept. 30 there were 141 confirmed cases of Candida auris across the state, with confirmation of another 22 probable cases pending. The strain is primarily found in health care settings, mostly nursing homes and other long-term care facilities that have patients on ventilators.

Healey and her team are focusing on how a class of drugs called triazoles interact with the fungus.

“If we better understand which mutations will lead to resistance in a patient, we can better predict which drugs that they should be treated with and which they cannot,” she said.

Adding to the difficulty for the medical detectives is the fact that Candida auris poses the biggest threat to people who are already sick, which makes it tough for doctors to know if a person is afflicted with a fungal infection or something else.

“Researchers believe that somewhere from a third to two-thirds of the people who get ill from this fungus die,” said Dr. Edward Lifshitz, medical director of the state Health Department’s communicable disease service. “Having a fungal infection is serious for anyone, but the people who tend to get sick with this are also more medically fragile.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the strain was discovered in Asia in 2009, but it didn’t make its way to the United States until 2016. Healthy people can carry it on their skin without contracting an infection.

“Time is already of the essence and you want to know what to give them quickly,” said Ben Williamson, biotechnology student at William Paterson University.

For now, the CDC is recommending hospitals disinfect contaminated surfaces using products with a 10% bleach solution. The state Department of Health says officials are hoping researchers will develop more concrete solutions in another year.