The way in which yeast cells identify and attach to human tissue in order to colonise it and cause an infection has been identified by researchers from Imperial College London.
The findings could help scientists create a new class of medicines and vaccines to combat drug-resistant and deadly strains of fungal infections.
Yeast infections are the fourth most common cause of infection acquired by people in hospitals, although in healthy people they are most usually associated with vaginal or oral yeast infections known as thrush.
In extreme cases in vulnerable patients, such yeasts can circulate in the bloodstream and spread throughout the body, causing systemic candidiasis.
This is life threatening in around half of patients when the infection spreads in this way.
Now, the researchers have identified the key features in this process and plan to create and test prototype drug-like molecules that interfere with the yeast and prevent the infection from taking hold.
There are already treatments that are effective at suppressing yeast infections and eliminating them from medical equipment, but microorganisms are constantly evolving to outsmart existing drugs and many strains of yeast have already become completely resistant to anti-fungal treatments.
Scientists are seeking new ways to effectively kill them or prevent infection.
"Most healthy women will have thrush or other mild yeast infection at some point in their lives, but what is less well known is that yeasts can be lethal, and a major health concern for vulnerable hospital patients," said Dr Paula Salgado from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, one of the main investigators who carried out the research.
"What I find most concerning is the fact that we don't seem to have an effective way to control the most severe cases of these infections. Our work allows us to understand the details involved and provide vital clues to develop new drugs and clinical applications," he added.
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.