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You are covered in mushrooms. How does it affect your health?



The connections between different parts of the human body are full of surprises, but here is one you may not have considered: Can one thing that causes dandruff on the head also contribute to your digestive problems?

It is a mystery that scientists are trying to unravel with research on fungi living in your gut. While the bacteria that colonize, the intestines have been a scientific focus for more than a decade, the fungi begin to pay more attention.

These studies have already revealed striking connections between fungi and several chronic diseases, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. As is typical of medical science, a simple explanation (A causes B, which can be cured by C) is unlikely.

But the potential for improving hundreds of thousands of patients – and uncovering complex processes that we have never understood was the reason for these diseases – has created the fungus field that speaks to medical researchers.

The race is on to make these connections and add to the growing evidence. The results could benefit hundreds of thousands of people. Crohn's disease, for example, is commonly treated using anti-inflammatory drugs known as TNF inhibitors. But these treatments are only effective for about 60 percent of patients, according to Crohn's and Colitis Foundation.

Drugs are also expensive: The anti-TNF drug Humira can run as much as $ 38,000 a year, depending on the patient's insurance.

The connection between Crohn's and Malassezia allows for yet to be proven – that something as simple as a generic fungicidal substance could give relief: Wipe out the fungus, dry out the inflammation. Dr. Underhill and his colleagues move into clinical trials now, just one of many teams eager to test the idea.

Researchers in Montreal are pursuing a similar clinical trial of treatment beginning as early as summer, according to Martin Laurence, a researcher and creator of The Malassezia Project, who follows the research published on this particular organism.

It is not only inflammatory bowel diseases that have been associated with mycobiome. A study released last year showed that alteration of the intestinal fungal composition of mice exacerbated asthma symptoms. Some early evidence suggests a relationship between fungal infections and prostate cancer.

"The technology improves every year, we get better and better identify organisms and their role in disease and symptom management," says Dr. J. Curtis Nickel, a urologist at Queen's University in Canada.

Dr. Nickel is a co-author of upcoming research that suggests the link between Malassezia and interstitial cystitis, a chronic and painful bladder condition.

He said the next step for many scientists is to investigate how these fungi interact with and be affected by the other organisms living with them.

"I suppose it's an interaction between all the different bacteria, fungi and viruses," says Dr. Nickel. "An unhealthy population of these organisms exacerbates the disease and maybe even – this is the next step – causing it. But boy, we're not there yet."

Although we are far from declaring antifungal a panacea for gut disorders, researchers are optimistic that further research on mycobiome will help solve the mysteries of these inflammatory diseases and may even offer new forms of treatment.

"When you talk about this research for the people who have these diseases, it is like a new light in the dark," said Dr. Lavie-Richard. "It's a new hope."


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