Monday, April 27, 2015

Fighting feline fungal disease

A Persian cat with sino-orbital aspergillosis affecting the right nasal cavity and orbit, due to Aspergillus felis infection.  The fungus has invaded from the nasal cavity into the orbit and grown behind the eye, pushing it forward. This has resulted in swelling (white arrows).

SAT has recently featured a number of blogs on fungal disease (mycoses) and those who study fungi (mycologists). One of the reasons is that fungal diseases are so neglected when it comes to research funding. But they’re a real issue and the incidence appears to be increasing, in both humans and animals. Unfortunately I recently lost a non-human companion due to a fungal disease resulting in acute fungal hepatitis. Investigations are continuing. 

We spoke to Dr Vanessa Barrs, a feline specialist who was awarded a PhD in mycology recently, about the challenges of diagnosing and treating these diseases in feline patients.

As a companion animal practitioner, the most common fungal infections I see in cats are dermatophytes or ringworm. But as a feline specialist you've diagnosed systemic fungal infections, or mycoses. What are the key systemic mycoses that affect cats in Australia?

The major ones that affect cats in Australia are cryptococcosis, aspergillosis and phaeohyphomycoses. Australia has one of the highest rates of cryptococcal infection in cats in the world. Until recently ‘crypto ’was the only systemic mycosis on the radar for most practicing vets, and with the availability of antigen tests for diagnosis, with high sensitivity and specificity (like the latex cryptococcal antigen agglutination titre (LCAT) many vets have diagnosed and managed cases of cryptococosis in vet practices around Australia.

Aspergillosis, on the other hand, is an emerging mycosis of cats globally. Aspergillosis in cats generally takes two forms – a focal form restricted to the upper respiratory tract, or a disseminated form. The latter was diagnosed most commonly twenty or more years ago in young cats immunosuppressed from panleukopenia infections, but we don’t see much of this now.  Upper respiratory aspergillosis was rarely diagnosed until recently. Interestingly, the very first case in a cat was diagnosed in 1982 by Dr. George Wilkinson, the “grandfather” of feline medicine in Australia, from the University of Queensland. Then, no Australian cases were reported for many years. Now, in 2015, Australia has recorded the highest number of cases of this disease in the world.

Phaeohyphomycoses are the third most common “deep” fungal infection affecting Australian cats. These fungi are distinctive because they have melanin in their cell walls. They cause opportunistic infections when they are inoculated into the skin from penetrating wounds, or inhaled.

With global warming the prevalence of fungal infections in animals and humans is predicted to increase, because of more favorable environments for fungi to grow over a wider geographic range.  On that note, we are starting to see other “unusual” fungal infections in cats presenting to the Valentine Charlton Cat Centre at the University of Sydney, like scedosporiosis, which is a filamentous fungus that belongs in the “hyalohyphomycoses” group.

Dr Barrs with a feline patient.
How did you get involved in researching fungal diseases in cats?

It started back in 2006, when I was referred three unusual feline cases of upper respiratory tract disease. My investigations revealed they all had aspergillosis of the nasal cavity and sinuses, with additional orbital involvement in two cases. In fact those two cases were presented for “a swollen eye” by their owners, because the fungus had grown behind the eye and pushed it forward. What was even more interesting is that none of these cases seemed to be caused by Aspergillus fumigatus. At that time, it was widely accepted that A. fumigatus was the most common cause of this disease in cats. 

Co-incidental to these three cases turning up, colleagues at the Centre for Infectious Diseases at Westmead Hospital, including Dr. Catriona Halliday, had requested submission of samples from cats and dogs with mycoses to evaluate a new PCR assay that they had developed for diagnosis of fungal infections in people. The PCR sequences of the fungi from my cats were closely related to but different to A. fumigatus.  

My interest was piqued, and I decided to research this disease in cats further. I enrolled in a PhD part time. Colleagues at Westmead hospital were extremely helpful and collaborated on the initial molecular identification studies. It wasn’t long before we had 23 new cases for study from around Australia, thanks to the willingness of Australian veterinarians to contribute cases and support clinical research. I was fortunate to then be awarded an Endeavour Research Fellowship from the Australian Government that enabled me to continue my research with Professor Robert Samson’s group at the renowned CBS-Fungal Biodiversity Centre in Utrecht, The Netherlands. We were able to confirm that a new species of fungus, Aspergillus felis, is the most common cause of sino-orbital aspergillosis in cats. Aspergillus felis is inherently more virulent than A. fumigatus and more likely to be resistant to antifungal drugs.

My interest in fungal infections in cats (and dare I say it, dogs) is ongoing. Currently, in my lab, four vets (2 PhD and 2 Masters students) are investigating multiple different areas including where these fungi live in the environment, why certain breeds of cats are prone to respiratory aspergillosis, diagnostic tests and pharmacokinetics of new antifungal drugs.

Why do cats get systemic mycoses in the first place?

That is a very interesting question. We have some answers, but there is a long way to go before this question can be fully answered.

Two things have to happen for these mycoses to occur – exposure to the fungus, and failure of the immune-system to eliminate it. The first varies with geographic region. For example “hot spots” for cryptococcosis are Australia and the Pacific Northwest. Fungi like Cryptococcus and Aspergillus live in the environment in places like soil and decaying plant matter BUT they can also be found in air and water, so it’s not just outdoor cats that are exposed. In fact in one study of cats with cryptococcosis a quarter of cats were indoor only pets.

There are many reasons why the immune-system might not be able to eliminate a fungus after it is inhaled or inoculated, and these depend on a complex interplay between the cat’s immune-system (host factors) and virulence factors of the fungus. We know that in Australia certain breeds of cats are more likely to develop these infections. For example Ragdoll cats appear to be prone to both cryptococcosis and upper respiratory aspergillosis. Pure-bred cats of Persian lineage (e.g. Persians, Himalayans, British shorthairs) are susceptible to upper respiratory aspergillosis. Why is this? Certainly an inherited immune-disorder is possible. But, these cats also have brachycephalic conformation, which means there nasal cavity and sinuses are anatomically quite different to other cats. It’s been proposed that this might make the microenvironment in the nasal cavity more favorable for fungal colonization.  Other factors like previous viral upper respiratory infections are also implicated.

Cats with suppression of their immune-system from disease or drugs, are also susceptible to systemic mycoses. For example, I saw a cat with severe rheumatoid arthritis that was being treated with immunosuppressive drugs develop a disseminated fungal infection (a phaeohyphomycoses).

Why are fungal infections difficult to diagnose?

Fungal infections can be difficult to diagnose because they can mimic other diseases like cancer, and testing for them can be complicated. Fortunately, for both cryptococcosis and aspergillosis, diagnosis is getting easier, thanks to new diagnostic tests.

As I mentioned earlier antigen tests for cryptococcosis like the LCAT have been around for many years. They are very reliable and revolutionized our ability to diagnose this disease in cats. Newer, less expensive cage-side tests like the lateral flow assay (CrAg® LFA, IMMY) will also help us to rapidly achieve diagnosis of this disease.

My group evaluated an antigen test (serum galactomannan) for respiratory aspergillosis in cats. It is not very reliable and not recommended for routine screening tests. We then evaluated serum antibody titres (IgG) by ELISA and found that this testing methodology has an excellent ability to discriminate between cats with upper respiratory aspergillosis and non-infected cats.

There’s been a fairly widespread conception that fungi are hard to culture from cats, but this is in fact not true. Both Cryptococcus and Aspergillus fungi can be readily cultured – the trick is getting good diagnostic samples. For example, some cats with cryptococcosis only have infections right at the back of their nasal cavity, so culture from nasal swabs can be negative. We showed that fungal cultures were positive in over 95% of cats with upper respiratory tract aspergillosis.

What makes them challenging to treat?

These infections are challenging to treat for lots of reasons. We know little about how antifungal drugs work in cats, and for some mycoses the best treatments have not been identified. The treatment period is often much longer than for other infections, e.g. bacterial infections. Typically, cats require treatment courses of many months for cure, but it does vary from cat to cat and from mycosis to mycosis. Treatments can also be expensive. Owners need to be dedicated and able to keep in regular contact with their veterinarian to monitor their cat’s recovery.

The prognosis for cryptococcosis overall is good. The prognosis for aspergillosis depends on the type of infection. If the infection is just in the nasal cavity, then the prognosis is favorable. If it’s an orbital infection the prognosis is currently poor overall, although individual cats have been cured.

Are there any recent developments that might improve the outcomes for cats with systemic mycoses?

There are quite a few new developments in the field of veterinary mycology. We’ve recognised that to get the best outcome we need to know quite a bit about the fungus that is causing it. Where possible, identification of the fungus should be performed. As we’ve discovered, this is not always just a case of sending a sample to the lab for culture. In many cases in order to identify the fungus, molecular techniques are required. This means arranging for your vet lab to send the fungus to a Mycology Reference Centre (e.g. or to an institution that specializes in fungal identification. There is new information coming out about antifungal drugs in cats. We’ve shown that posaconazole, a newer generation triazole antifungal similar to itraconazole, is well-tolerated by cats with clinical infections. Researchers at North Carolina State University have recently published findings on pharmacokinetics of this drug in dogs, and results from a similar study in cats are anticipated to be available soon. 

My lab is happy to talk to any vet from around Australia with a feline fungal enquiry (

Thank you Vanessa. And thank you to all of the mycologists and fungal experts who have contributed to research on mycoses in Australia. We’re looking forward to seeing you at the International Society for Human And Animal Mycology congress

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Date with your dog: Ironfest

Ironfest performers hoops
Phil met some wonderful people at Ironfest.
How have you been kicking back with your non-human companions? Last weekend Phil and I went on a road trip, over the Blue Mountains and into Lithgow, home of Ironfest.

Ironfest is a festival of historical re-enactments, attracting people who spend their time re-creating moments in history, often centered around important battles. Participants are very passionate. Despite the fact that the temperatures dropped and there was a thunderstorm, so dedicated to historical accuracy were many of them that they slept in historically accurate (i.e. somewhat leaky) tents overnight.

Ironfest US soldiers
These lads are dressed as US soldiers from WWII and bravely slept in their historically accurate tents, although on detailed quizzing they fessed up that due to the torrential rain there may have been some sneakage into historically inaccurate vehicles during the night.
To our absolute delight, it’s a canine friendly event, although it should be said that the boom of simulated cannons and the pyrotechnics don’t suit every dog Dogs with noise or storm phobias should steer clear. As long as it’s not someone ringing a doorbell, Phil remains remarkably calm. Mind you, tents – historically accurate or otherwise – are not Phil’s thing, so we attended for a day only.

Ironfest steampunk
Phil meets a steampunk with an impressive prosethetic arm.
It’s the first time Phil and I have been to this sort of event together, and boy was he a crowd-pleaser. He doesn’t have a medieval outfit in his collection but he wore a royal blue number (we were thinking kings and queens and knights of olde).  

As we wandered around admiring the incredible costumes, Phil managed to draw smiles from hardened World War II soliders, knights, maidens, Mongolian warlords and steampunks alike.

Ironfest warrior
Phil is unfazed by warriors.
The most surreal moment was when my friend Carrie was placed in stocks by a gent who was playing a very convincing medieval hangman. He was taunting her while she was being whipped (for what crime I never found out) when he suddenly spotted Phil sitting quietly in my arms.

These guys were simulating some sort of medieval justice, and were quite scary, til the hangman (on the right) spotted Phil. You can see him break into a smile.
He melted and reached old, taking Phil and gently stroking him and reflecting on his own dog, a lhasa apso, whom he had to leave at home for the day. During this very touching monologue Carrie was politely trying to disengage from the stocks but this guy was so set on getting his dog fix that he was in another world. Such is the power of the human animal bond.

Phil at Ironfest
Phil brings out everyone's inner softie.
For more info on Ironfest, visit the website here.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Do we look after rabbits well?

rabbit bunny husbandry welfare
Are we giving bunnies what they really need?
Do we care for pet rabbits appropriately? It was a question asked by UK researchers who set out to examine the way companion rabbits in England are looked after – and they found some major welfare issues.

Just to put this into context, rabbits are the third most popular mammalian pet in the UK, behind dogs and cats. There are an estimated 1.7 million pet rabbits, kept in 4 per cent of UK households.  I can’t locate any official figures on rabbit ownership in Australia, but the keeping of pet rabbits is illegal in some states (for example, Queensland). Unfortunately, large numbers of rabbits experience stress on a daily basis thanks to their housing, husbandry and handling.

rabbit bunny hay timothy
Boris the bunny loves his hay. Every single day.
In Australia at least there seems to be a widespread perception that rabbits are easy to look after, great kid’s pets, not as much trouble as a dog or cat, requiring less time and so on. In fact, this is not the case. Rabbits are complex creatures with similar needs to dogs and cats – companionship, enrichment, exercise, stimulation, and security. As prey animals they mask signs of stress or illness as their survival depends on it.

Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits are usually (but not always) kept in hutches, which gives them little freedom to move, little control over their environment and not a lot of space to express normal behaviours.

There are plenty of guidelines for housing laboratory rabbits in scientific institutions, but when it comes to companion rabbits we tend to assume that as they’re being kept as pets they will be well looked after. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. For example, laboratory guidelines detail the minimum hutch-size for rabbits. But one study from the UK found that one fifth of rabbit hutches for companion rabbits were smaller than the minimum size recommended in laboratories.

A diverse population of 1254 rabbit owners from three different geographical regions in England were surveyed about the husbandry and care of their rabbits. Some people reported that they kept rabbits very well, which is great. But there were a number of issues identified in this study.

While most rabbits had access to exercise areas outside of their hutch, this access was often unpredictable or ill-timed for the rabbits.

Only 41.9% of people kept rabbits with together. Single-housing of rabbits does mean they can’t express social behaviour. One reason for single-housing in rabbits is, of course, aggression. Indeed, in those who kept rabbits with conspecifics, around one quarter fought occasionally, 22 per cent guarded resources like food and 27 per cent outright avoided one another. The authors argue that “it is essential that compatible pairings are selected and introduced appropriately, and adequately-sized and structured living space is provided to allow rabbits to avoid one another if they so choose,” (p11).

Concerningly, the majority of rabbits (61 per cent) did not behave calmly when picked up by owners or other adults (75 per cent). Moreover, 27 per cent of owners weren’t confident holding their own rabbit. This lack of confidence may be something rabbits are aware of, and may exacerbate the stress of handling.

The good news was that the majority of owners fed hay daily, but 10 per cent of rabbit owners did not.

This study proves that there is a need for evidence-based guidelines on basic rabbit husbandry to ensure minimal stress. In addition, some education around the proper care and particularly handling of rabbits could ease stress on the part of rabbits and owners alike.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What do pet cats really need?

Michael chair black and white cat
Are you meeting your cat's needs?
What do cats really need from their environment? The non-feline oriented may roll their eyes and wonder why veterinarians, cat owners and others are even asking the question. But it’s critical to their welfare.

Companion cats are, to put it bluntly, captive. We keep them in an unnatural environment over which they typically have little control, so it’s up to us to ensure that that environment meets their needs.

Everyone who works with cats knows that their environment impacts on their physical health, wellbeing and behaviour.

Provide a safe place: cats prefer avoidance to confrontation and as such like to have the option of withdrawing to a safe zone. In most houses and multi-room apartments cats can find places to retreat to where they feel safe. In my house, the wardrobe is quite popular. As is any suitcase. Or under/behind furniture. I don’t always feel safe when a little paw strikes me from under the coffee table, but at least I know Hero feels better!

cat bed teepee
Michael likes to retreat to her teepee when Hero is overexcited.
Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources: food, water, litter trays/toileting areas, scratching areas, play and exercise areas and sleeping areas. Cats are solitary animals who enjoy privacy and cope much better if they’re not forced to undertake their daily ablutions and other routines in front of an audience, feline or not. In my experience, owners really struggle with litter trays. You need at least one for each cat AND one extra. Having one litter tray in a multi-pet household is like subjecting your cats to the vilest public toilet and expecting them to feel comfortable in it. They don’t. It’s not that much more trouble to clean two litter trays.

cat litter tray toilet
There are some things that cats like to do in private. Toileting is definitely one of these.
Provide opportunity for play and predatory behaviour: cats that don’t have these opportunities may suffer from boredom, obesity and misdirected behaviours. Playing predatory games with your cat does not give them a license to kill, but it is helpful in meeting their behavioural needs. Even older cats need to play. The easiest, cheapest version of this is the old scrunch up a bit of paper and throw it down the hallway past your cat. Even if they sit there and watch you flick your old tax return around for an hour, they’ve been entertained.

Kitten playing claws burmese
Paper and string is all you need to get a cat excited. Never
leave kittens unsupervised with string. they have a way of eating it.
Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat interaction: most cats like frequent but short interactions with people, and the scientifically proven best spots to pat them are on the head or around the cheeks. Some cats like Michael will allow you to pat them on the head and, once they’ve assessed you’re up to the task, roll over and show you the other bits they want patted. Not all cats are like that and you can’t force them. Don’t, whatever you do, blow a raspberry on a cat’s belly. In 99.9 per cent of cases, this will not be well received.

Occasional visitors are "permitted" to give Michael a neck and shoulder massage once they have patted her on the head and under the chin.
Provide an environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell: they’re much more sensitive to smell than we are, and some smells (such as marking of another cat outside) can be offensive and distressing to them. Use of cleaning products that disrupt or offend your cat’s olfaction is discouraged. Providing familiar scents (via bedding or clothing) may have a calming effect. For me, having had both cats in hospital in the last few months, I’m reminded of just how foreign they smell when they come home from the vet. They act like they don’t know each other for a day or so. I’ve used a synthetic feline facial pheromone, Feliway, to try to spread some feline happiness. I’ve also been a big fan of giving them something that I think smells good and entertains them – cat grass.

Cat grass cats plants apartment cats
Minty with a massive pot of cat grass.
You can read the full article – including dozens of specific suggestions – via the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery or you can read the brochure for cat owners here.


Monday, April 20, 2015

How to take the best photo of your best friend: interview with My Dog's Territory photographer Pierre Mardaga

Pet photos are everywhere, but do you know how to take a really good one? Pacino looks stunning in this portrait by Pierre Mardaga.
Have you ever seen your dog/cat/chicken bathed in the most gorgeous light, reached for the phone and taken a fairly ordinary picture? Do you share your life with the most stunning creature the world has ever seen, but can’t quite capture that beauty?

Action shots are always good!
Professional photographer Pierre Mardaga knows a lot about photographing companion animals. He’s taken thousands of photos of pooches around Sydney for his My Dog’s Territory project, and has just launched “Hipster Dogs” – looking for canine models of the hipster variety. (I should declare at this point that yes, Phil has modelledfor Pierre and yes, the photos are incredible).

He very patiently allowed SAT to pick his brains about how to take a great animal photo and generously shared his top tips.

I love this Victorian style portrait of the stunning Darius.
According to Pierre, “A good image is structured with expression, show’s the dog’s personality coming through, utilises good lighting and composition, and should be properly exposed and focused.” So how does one make that happen?
The main thing is to try to get to eye level with them and treat them as a hero. If you’re equal to them or somehow look up at them they become a hero in the photo. You could put them on a chair or a step, you don’t have to get down commando style [Ed – though you can, just look out for grass stains].

Minnie does look like a superhero here.
People often don’t shoot where this enough light for their camera. Find a well-lit spot in your house to get the photos. Try to work with the light coming onto your dog and not from behind. If you do have your dog backlit, compensate for it (e.g. using flash or adjusting exposure) or if you’re using your phone camera touch the screen on the dog so it exposes for the dog.

Coco is nicely lit in this otherwise dark tunnel.
Know the settings on your camera so you can choose the right exposure for your dog. There are people telling me they prefer lighter coloured dogs so they don’t have trouble photographing their pets. There is a setting on most cameras – HDR or high dynamic range – that can compensate for that. It usually takes a high exposure and low exposure image and combines them giving you more detail.

This pair look like sunbursts.
If you want to take a nice photo, declutter. You need to look at the background when you take the shot so you make sure you don’t have the bins in it [Ed – guilty of that one!] – unless that’s your intention.

The plants work nicely here because they are all coordinated. And Boris does look like a bit of a hero!
Photograph what you want to see. You might see a fantastic animal that is far away – you need to get up close to take a nice photo.

Know your subject. The hardest thing with a mobile phone is the shutter lag, so you have to be patient and calm around them.

You need a repertoire of noises. Some sounds work with some dogs – a woofing sound, a happy puppy bark, a big growling dog, or a cat sound. Key words work – like “walkies” or “din din”. Or sometimes the neighbour’s cat’s name. You need to work out each animal’s thing, something that will get its attention – it could be food, or a ball, or a sound you make. If it’s none of the above you just have to work harder. You have to be careful with whistling as this will often make the animal run towards the camera.

The moment that Pierre has made the right noise to attract Rio's attention in this awesome family portrait.
Thank you Pierre for taking time out to chat. You can check out Pierre’s work on facebook or the My Dog’s Territory website here. He's still seeking dog's in Sydney's Marrickville Municipality to feature on his next book. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A dog cake, novel anatomy lessons, vet nursing cats and oxytocin-infused gazing

Bluey waits for his friends on the track.
Do you have four days and excellent sculpting skills? Then you might be able to make this cake. Although I doubt, having achieved that mean feat, you will want to eat it. In fact if you manage to make this cake you’ll probably dive on top of anyone that walks anywhere near it with a knife.

Mike McCormick is a medical student who used candy to help learn anatomy (of humans) and his Instagram is full of extremely clever, edible anatomy lessons. Veterinary students everywhere could rise to this challenge.

If you’re not into edible anatomy, or you’re trying to be healthy, there’s also the burgeoning field of aKNITomy, where you can purchase a pattern to knit your own simulated dissections of animals, which seems like a much more educational, more human alternative than the high-school science practical classes which often culminate in someone fainting and someone else getting suspended for throwing kidneys. Check out the Facebook page here

Wednesday’s post prompted a lot of discussion (if you’ve not seen it, check it out here), specifically “yes, but my dog eats cat poo”. Well yes, that is common. So common that at least one company has produced one novel solution to prevent canine access to the litterbox.

And on that slightly unsavoury topic, an enterprising pair have invented the world’s first reusabledog waste bag.

This cat has been working as a “vet nurse” in Poland. Interesting interpretation of his behaviour. Extremely cute nonetheless. Probably not a nurse I’d completely trust to recover the pocket pets from anaesthesia though…

Kim and Jan sent this linkfrom the Guardian about research suggesting that dogs and humans experience a surge in oxytocin when they gaze into one another’s eyes.

You can read the original article in Science here. I wonder if facilitating the oxytocin-infused gaze has anything to do with our preference for morphological characteristics of certain breeds? Of course not everyone agrees with the findings, including Dr Clive Wynne who wrote this piece.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Interview with Catriona Halliday, mycologist

Dr Catriona Halliday
Dr Catriona Halliday at work in the lab. She doesn't normally sport a red lab coat but I sense a new trend. 
Have you ever considered a career in research? Its an opportunity to influence human and animal health on a broad scale. SAT interviewed scientist Catriona Halliday about her research on pathogenic fungal species. For those who don't know, mycology is the study of fungi - from mushrooms to yeasts used for brewing beer to fungi that cause clinical disease in humans and animals. A mycologist someone who studies fungi. They're also a fun guy to be with (get it? fun-gi!).

At this point I should declare that I have been hosting an Italian mycologist in my house. Thus I've been mixing with more mycologists than your average non-mycologist might normally. But these people are passionate about science and the health of humans and animals. And that is very fortunate for the rest of us: the death toll from serious fungal infections (mycoses) is similar to that of tuberculosis and malaria. But research funding on fungal disease is reasonably poor.

Worldwide, the antifungal drug market is worth around $8billion, and growing by 2-3 per cent per annum, but there are not a huge number of antifungal treatments available and many cause significant side effects and toxicities.

Catriona Halliday is the Senior Scientist in charge of the Clinical Mycology Reference Laboratory at Westmead Hospital where she has been working for over 14 years.  Her research interests have focused on the development and implementation of culture independent tests to aid in the rapid diagnosis of invasive fungal infections, in particular invasive aspergillosis. She took some time out of her very busy schedule to talk to SAT about her career as a scientist and mycologist.

Catriona Halliday mycologist
Dr Halliday.
What’s your day job?

I’m the senior scientist in charge of the Clinical Mycology Reference Laboratory at the Centre for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Laboratory Services (CIDMLs), Pathology West – Institute of Clinical Pathology and Medical Research (ICPMR) at Westmead Hospital in Sydney. Our role is to isolate and identify fungal pathogens directly from clinical specimens using both conventional culture and culture independent methods through the detection of DNA and antigen surrogate markers. 

Additionally, fungal cultures and aerobic actinomycetes (e.g. Nocardia species) are referred to us for identification and/or antifungal susceptibility testing from other pathology services within NSW and interstate. I train medical registrars, undergraduate and postgraduate students in practical and theoretical aspects of medical mycology.

How did you become a professional scientist?

Accidentally – I never knew what I wanted to do but enjoyed biological sciences at school. I knew I wanted to go to the University of Sydney so decided to enrol in a Bachelor of Science degree (a general degree that wasn’t Arts). I loved my time at university, meeting many of my closest friends and gradually the subjects I studied and was interested in narrowed to microbiology. I graduated from my B Sc. (Hons) in 1997 and completed my PhD, also from the University of Sydney, in 2001. Towards the end of my PhD candidature I was fortunate to hear about a new job that had been created in the Mycology Laboratory at Westmead Hospital. The position required experience in both clinical mycology and molecular biology, it was as though it had been written for me! 

Fungal diagnostics is several decades behind diagnostics in bacteriology and virology, and when I began working at Westmead detection and identification of fungi in clinical samples relied completely on culture. My role, when employed at CIDMLS, was to expand my narrow knowledge of culture-based identification of fungal pathogens and to develop PCR-based assays to allow more rapid diagnosis and with the aim of improving patient outcomes.

How did you become interested in mycology?

I completed the first 3 years of my B. Sc. before I was 20.5 years old. Having gone straight to university from school I wanted to take some time off to travel before ‘finding a real job’. Against the advice of some senior lecturers, who thought I would never return, I deferred my candidature and took 12 months off. 

Towards the end of that time, I contacted the Department of Microbiology at Sydney University for a list of honours projects that were being offered for the following year. In my absence, a new lecturer with expertise in mycology had been employed. All 3 of the honours projects I shortlisted were in the Mycology Laboratory under the supervision of Dr Dee Carter. The project I ended up undertaking was titled ‘Analysis of the source of Cryptococcus neoformans var. gattii infection in animals’ and I was co-supervised by Professor Richard Malik [ed - Professor Malik is veterinarian with an interest in mycology]. My interest and love of medical mycology had begun with the support, optimism and enthusiasm of two incredible mentors. Following on from my honours year, I was given the opportunity to enrol in a PhD which was financially supported by an NH& MRC grant of Dee’s.

In your view, which is the most interesting fungal pathogen and why?

Having studied it so intensely for 4.5 years, Cryptococcus gattii will always be close to my heart. The discovery of its association with Eucalypt trees in the early 1990s put Australia and medical mycology on the map. Closer to home, my work on this fungus cemented my career path. Fortunately for the patients, I don’t come across C. gattii too often. My two favourite fungi to look at microscopically are Saksenaea vasiformis, which as the species name suggests looks like a vase and Sporothrix schenckii, whose conidia cluster like the petals of a flower [Ed: click the species names to view the images, and she's absolutely right. I would enlarge and frame that image of Sporothrix schenckii if it were available in high res!].

What do we need to do to prevent or manage these infections?

Provide a rapid, accurate diagnosis and help restore a patients immune system to fight off the infection.

What non-human(s) do you share your life with and how did you meet?

I grew up with pets – a series of black standard poodles and one very special brown Burmese cat, Grizz, who ruled the house. When I moved out of home, I left Grizz behind but as soon as I had settled into a more permanent home, we acquired our ‘first born’ – a brown Burmese called Audrey. Over the years, Audrey’s place in the pecking order has moved down the ladder as we have welcomed 3 human children into the home, but the kids adore her and my youngest of 2.5 years fights to feed her and insists on brushing her if given half the chance. As soon as the kids are in bed and I am relaxing in front of the TV she leaps onto my lap for a pat and some much needed one on one time.

Audrey Halliday, proving yet again (n must equal a gazillion by now) that behind (or on top of) every truly great scientist there is a great cat.
 Any advice for aspiring scientists?

It’s becoming increasingly competitive and difficult to find employment in areas of applied science. I feel so fortunate to have a permanent job doing something I love and hopefully making a difference. My advice to aspiring scientists is to identify your mentors, work with them, and don’t underestimate their importance. 

Although some may view a B. Sc. as a very general degree, it teaches you to think and problem solve in ways that can then be applied to other professions. When applying for jobs, be prepared to start in roles that you may be overqualified for – get your foot in the door, prove yourself and other doors will open.