Toxins from mold found growing on nuts or corn can weaken the airways’ self-clearing mechanisms and immunity, opening the door for respiratory diseases and exacerbating existing ones, according to the results of a study from otolaryngology researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
Aflatoxins are a type of mycotoxin produced by certain fungi (Aspergillus flavus, for example) growing on and in certain foods. Overall, 25% of food crops worldwide are contaminated with these molds, which are known to cause allergic fungal rhinosinusitis and bronchopulmonary aspergillosis.
According to the researchers, the effects of inhaled aflatoxins or aflatoxin-producing fungi on the airway epithelium are not well characterized. In this study, they examined the effects of acute exposure to aflatoxins on airway cell physiology and concluded that the aflatoxins slowed down and impaired key defense mechanisms in the airways, including mucosal ciliary clearance and ciliary beat frequency (CBF). The results suggest that aflatoxins enhance the pathogenicity of the fungi and possibly other co-infecting pathogens, such as bacteria.
“Patients may become more susceptible to upper respiratory infections and chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS) that can ‘seed’ lower respiratory infections, especially in those with a compromised immune system,” said senior author Noam A. Cohen, MD, PhD, an associate professor of otorhinolaryngology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
The researchers found that CBF reductions were blocked by the protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitors Gö6983 and calphostin C, suggesting that drugs with similar activity could potentially be used to treat the fungal infection and prevent further co-infections. The use of such drugs to treat the infections may lessen the need for patients to be on antibiotics.