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Plant scientists working on new cure for Athlete’s Foot

11 April 2008

A green-fingered approach is being taken by scientists to help the millions of people who suffer the discomfort of itchy, sore feet.

With funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and US skin care pharmaceutical company Stiefel Laboratories, plant scientists are looking for molecular targets for new treatments for common fungal conditions such as Athlete’s Foot and Ringworm. The research is featured in the new issue of Business, BBSRC’s research highlights magazine.

The organisms responsible for causing Athlete’s Foot are Dermatophytes, literally meaning ‘skin plants’. Dermatophyte fungi thrive in warm moist conditions and grow on the surface of the skin and then invade the superficial layers of the skin. Scientists from the University of Oxford are looking at what controls their growth and adhesion to the skin.

Sarah Gurr, Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology at Oxford, explains: “We have learned much about the ways that fungi invade plants during the past few years. By contrast, however, we know very little about the life-style and invasion habits of the Athlete’s foot fungus. It occurred to me that whatever we learnt in plants could be applied to medicine. This is an exciting part of our work which we hope will result in effective treatments for this uncomfortable human condition.”

While much of her team’s work focuses on rice blast, a fungus responsible for the loss of thousands of tonnes of rice across the world, some of the knowledge gained and techniques developed have proved transferable between this fungi and that responsible for Athlete’s Foot.

Using a technique called Expressed Sequence Tags, the researchers are identifying the genes implicated in building fungal cell walls, a crucial part of the fungi which enables it to grow and spread in both plants and humans. Professor Gurr’s team are exploring how the expression of particular genes correlates with the efficacy of different antifungal drugs. Their aim is to identify targets for which drug designers can develop new medicines that can be applied to the skin to prevent fungal infection.

Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Director of Science and Technology, said: "Novel research on plant pathogens not only offers the potential for improved crop yields and food security but, as this project shows, may have direct applications to human health as well."

This research is also funded by EU, NESTA and the EF Abraham Cephalosporin Fund.


Notes to editors

This research features in the April 2008 issue of Business, the research highlights magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

External contact

Professor Sarah Gurr, University of Oxford

tel: 01865 275813

Ruth Collier, University of Oxford

tel: 01865 280532


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382