Sixto Leal head shotWritten by Christina Crowe

Sixto Leal, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Associate Director, Division of Laboratory Medicine, was recently awarded an American Lung Association COVID-19 Respiratory Virus Research Award for his project, “The Impact of SARS-CoV-2 Immune Dysregulation on Antifungal Immunity.” This is a two-year, $200,000 award.

The aim of the study is to evaluate whether immune responses targeting intracellular viruses (viruses that live inside host cells) compromise the ability of the immune system to simultaneously control mold infection.

“Unlike most invasive mold infections, COVID Associated Pulmonary Aspergillosis (CAPA) occurs in individuals with otherwise intact immune systems. This suggests the presence of novel biological mechanism/s rendering individuals susceptible to invasive fungal infection,” Leal says.  

First, the team will determine how SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) renders people with normal immune systems susceptible to mold infection. Second, they plan to use a novel mouse model of CAPA to study how SARS-CoV-2 infection kills lung cells, recruits less immune cells, and promotes mold growth. They will also evaluate the utility of novel drugs to prevent the establishment of secondary mold infection.

“Our overall goal is to better understand why these infections occur in order to prevent their development in patients with severe viral respiratory infection,” Leal says.

Leal directs the Southeastern Biosafety Laboratory Alabama Birmingham (SEBLAB) and the Clinical Microbiology and Fungal Reference Lab. He has led SARS-CoV-2 testing during the COVID pandemic for UAB Hospital and beyond. He and his team in the Fungal Reference Laboratory developed several innovations to expand and accelerate testing results in the face of severe scientific supply shortages in spring and summer 2020, the widespread testing of students as UAB and universities across the state returned to in-person education in fall 2020, and continues to lead the State of AL SARS-CoV-2 viral genome sequencing initiative.