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HMG-CN SPECIAL REPORT: Area Trees Harbor Life Threatening Fungus For Those With Compromised Immune Systems

By Brian Hews

Cerritos and surrounding communities are home to thousands of Canary Island pine trees that harbor Cryptococcus gattii (C. gattii ). C. Gattii can cause infections with those who have compromised immune systems. C. Gattii infections were prevalent in Southern California but doctors did not know how people caught the virus until a Duke University project found the virus in the pine trees.

Cerritos and surrounding communities are home to thousands of Canary Island pine trees that harbor Cryptococcus gattii (C. gattii ). C. Gattii can cause infections with those who have compromised immune systems. C. Gattii infections were prevalent in Southern California but doctors did not know how people caught the virus until a Duke University project found the virus in the pine trees.

 

It is called Cryptococcus gattii

(C. gattii ) and can cause life-threatening infections, especially in people with compromised immune systems with one-third of AIDS-related deaths thought to be caused by the fungus.

And according to a report from NPR (NRP.org), based on a study by Duke University, the fungus is prevalent in Canary Island pine trees.

And Cerritos and surrounding communities are home to thousands of the popular pine tree.

C. gatti  is a fungus that lives in many tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world as well as British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. C. gattii is an infection that people can get after breathing in the microscopic fungus.

The infection can affect the lungs, central nervous system, or both.

According to the report, people in Southern California have been getting sick from C. gattii for years, but nobody knew how.

Researchers looked at eucalyptus trees, since they have the fungus in Australia, but even though eucalyptus trees are predominate in Southern California, the fungus has not been found.

Researchers knew that the fungus was associated with trees but did not know what tree and did not have the time or funding to find out.

That is until an enterprising 7th grader from Los Angeles, Elan Filler, looking for a science fair project, found the elusive fungi.

It started when her father, Dr. Scott Filler, an infectious disease specialist at UCLA, talked with a Duke University professor about C. gattii and how no one could find the fungus in California.

Elan, looking for a project, was soon emailing the doctor. The two designed a plan, and Elan started running around Los Angeles County swabbing trees.

She started with eucalyptus trees and did not find the fungus, so she moved on to swabbing other trees.

She sent her samples to the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University Medical Center and confirmed the fungus was in Canary Island pines, along with America Sweetgum, and New Zealand pohutukawa.

The findings were published in 2014 in PLOS Pathogens, sponsored by Duke University. Authors included Deborah J. Springer, R. Blake Billmyre, Elan Filler, Kerstin Voelz, Rhiannon Pursall, Piotr A. Mieczkowski, Robert A. Larsen, Fred S. Dietrich, Robin C. May, Scott G. Filler, and Joseph Heitman. Heitman worked with Elan on the project.

Not bad for a 16 year-old.

Symptoms of C. gattii (cryptococcal disease) include prolonged cough lasting weeks or months, sputum production, sharp chest pain, shortness of breath, sinusitis, severe headache, and stiff neck.

People who have C. gattii infection need to take prescription antifungal medication for at least 6 months, often longer. The type of treatment usually depends on the severity of the infection and the parts of the body that are affected.

For people who have asymptomatic infections or mild-to-moderate pulmonary infections, the treatment is usually an antifungal called fluconazole.

For people who have severe lung infections or infections in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), the recommended initial treatment is amphotericin B in combination with flucytosine.

After that, patients usually need to take fluconazole for an extended time to clear the infection.

The type, dose, and duration of antifungal treatment may differ for certain groups of people, such as pregnant women, children, and people in resource-limited settings.

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