Gene Variants Behind Vulnerability to Yeast Infections

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists have identified two genetic mutations that help account for the presence of recurring yeast infections in certain women.

Although the researchers focused their work on small and very specific populations with extreme conditions, the findings provide new insights into one of the most common and annoying maladies to afflict women.

"This discovery is important as a starting point for further work," said Dr. Bart Jan Kullberg, co-author of one of two papers appearing in the Oct. 29 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"It is the first proof in the area of fungal infections that subtle genetic differences exist that explain why some [apparently healthy] persons do get certain ailments, and even suffer from recurrent episodes, whereas others never acquire these infections," said Kullberg, a professor of medicine at Radboud University in Nijmegan, the Netherlands.

Although the people studied here had extreme conditions, "you could potentially move to other mutations in the [same] gene or in this pathway to give more subtle phenotypes that we might see in everyday medicine," said Dr. Anthony Gregg, director of maternal and fetal medicine and medical director of genetics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Ultimately, researchers hope to use the findings to develop better treatments for these conditions, which become serious in some people.

"Once we understand the pathway, what we can potentially offer is therapies that take advantage of augmenting the normal pathways or utilizing redundant pathways that are working just fine but are not normally turned on to such a high degree," Gregg said.

At this point, however, the reports really have no relevance to patients, cautioned Dr. Steven Goldstein, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Yeast infections, which are typically caused by Candida albicans, arise from imbalances in the body's internal flora, especially in the vaginal tract, although it can affect the nail beds, mouth and bloodstream.

"The vagina is a finely tuned ecosystem with almost a dozen bacteria and yeast forms, and as long as they're in harmony, it's comfortable," Goldstein explained. "But if you take antibiotics, for instance, and eliminate some of the normal bacteria, then the yeast that live there all the time have a field day."

A healthy body is able to detect the first signs of a yeast infection and dispatch immune cells to take care of the problem, but not when one of the mutations is present, explained Narendra Kumar, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy in Kingsville.

"It's like a burglary in your house," Kumar said. "First, the alarm goes off, and here the mutation alarm does not go off properly so you don't have the police force coming to your house. That's how it gets colonized."

Kullberg's study looked at one woman and her three sisters who had recurring vaginal yeast infections.

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