Profile: Alex Brand
Alex Brand of the University of Aberdeen studies how a fungus called Candida albicans navigates around the body. She told Katherine Nightingale about how her interest in science was piqued down on the farm and — for her, at least — scientific life began at 40.
Some people get into science because of an inspiring teacher, others due to an insatiable curiosity to find out how the world works. Alex Brand got into science because she bought a small farm.
The farm was in Scotland, where Alex and her husband were posted with his job in the oil industry. It was the latest in a string of placements that had taken them all over the world — and Alex through a series of jobs from announcing the sports news in Indonesia to running a poster agency in Qatar.
“I’d left school with secretarial qualifications in the days when very few people went to university, but I still had a really enjoyable and varied career in lots of different fields,” says Alex.
Running a farm requires a surprising amount of science, from checking the water supply for nitrates and other pollutants to diagnosing disease in livestock.
Partly due to the cost of diagnostics, Alex decided to do this work herself. She borrowed an old microscope from the University of Aberdeen and was soon trading access to samples from the farm with training in microscopy and identifying pathogens from the university’s lecturers.
From interest to vocation
At the suggestion of one of the lecturers, Alex signed up to do a university Access course and in 1996 started a biochemistry degree at Aberdeen aged 40.
“Within a very short time I realised that biochemistry in particular was just amazing. So much had been discovered since I took chemistry and biology at school … it was just mind-blowing,” says Alex.
Alex “worked her socks off” during her degree, gaining a First followed by a PhD in microbiology, during which time she studied the cell wall of the fungus, Candida albicans.
She’s stuck with C. albicans and in 2009 and 2010, respectively, received a Royal Society University Research Fellowship and an MRC New Investigator Grant, which have allowed her to set up her own research team and lab. C. albicans produces long filaments called hyphae, and her team looks at how these hyphae grow through human body tissue and navigate their way around.
Candida albicans lives in around 80 per cent of people without causing any problem. But when a person has a weakened immune system, because of an immune-suppressing illness such as HIV infection or from taking immune-suppressing drugs for an organ transplant, the immune system isn’t strong enough to keep the fungus in check.
“The fungus can pose a threat once in the bloodstream,” says Alex. “Contact with factors in the blood cause it to switch from spherical yeast-like growth to its filamentous form. Hyphae stick to blood vessel walls and then burrow down into tissues in an effort to evade the immune system and search for nutrients.”
This kind of infection kills around 40 per cent of people who get it, invading major organs and causing septicaemia, a hyper-active immune response to the fungus. In the UK, more people die from candidiasis than from MRSA every year, says Alex.
Alex and her team study the chemical and physical cues in the environment that control how the hyphae grow and navigate, with the aim of finding new targets for drugs against C. albicans. It is difficult to treat fungal infections and Alex hopes her research will contribute to two-pronged therapies that target parts of the fungus such as components of the cell wall, as well as inhibiting the penetrating growth of filaments.
“If we can understand the basic ways that filaments steer, then we can target that function in combination with the therapies that other researchers are developing,” says Alex.
Making the change
Alex thinks her unorthodox career has given her a can-do attitude to her research.
“I’ve got so many ideas, both in terms of the university and what I want to do with my research. I feel as if I’ve only just started.”
And does she wish she’d started in science earlier? “No, because I’ve had a really exciting life and I’ve done some amazing things. I always wanted to explore the world and science is a fantastic career for constantly discovering new things about the way it works,” she says.
Alex had to sell her livestock in the end and, for now at least, it looks like her globetrotting days are on hold. When her husband was posted to the Netherlands for two years in 2009, Alex stayed put. “I said, ‘I’ve got this far, I’m staying here and developing my career,’” she recalls. “He’s back now and my research group has grown, so that was the right decision!”