California 7th-Grader ID’d Trees with Fungus Linked to AIDS-Related Deaths

Monday, September 01, 2014

A fungus not detected in North America until around 1999 has been a scourge for persons with immune system deficiencies, but it took a 7th-grader to identify what trees in California hosted the deadly bug.

Elan E. Filler of Rancho Palos Verdes was listed as one of the researchers on a study published last week in the journal PLOS Pathogens that identified the sources of Cryptococcus gattii (C. gattii) in Southern California: Canary Island pine, New Zealand pohutukawa and American sweet gum.

Filler, 16 and now in high school, won the Los Angeles County Science Fair in March for a project that focused on how another fungus, Candida glabrata, had become resistant to treatment. It probably didn’t hurt to have access to the L.A. Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where her father, Scott Filler, works.  

C. gattii can infect healthy people, but is particularly hard on persons with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS or cancer. It was found in tropical and subtropical parts of the world before it began infecting humans and animals on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, around 1999. It turned up in Oregon and Washington in 2004 before creeping down to California.

The fungus was found on Douglas fir trees in the Northwest, but they don’t grow in California. The state is lousy with eucalyptus trees, where the fungus thrives in Australia, but the trees were clean in California. Spores from the fungus are also found in soil and can be transported through the air.

Elan Filler, who was looking for a science fair project, embarked upon a quest to identify trees in the region with the fungus. Her father helped hook her up with Deborah Springer, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University who studies C. gattii, according to NPR reporter Nancy Shute, and Filler shipped the researcher fungi she swabbed from trees and grew in Petri dishes.

They matched fungus from the three trees to infections in people now and 10-12 years ago.

Symptoms of the infection, which surface between 2 and 14 months after exposure, may include fever, headache or a change in mental status if it attacks the central nervous system, according to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). They can also appear to be like pneumonia, with shortness of breath, coughing, nausea and fever. The infection is not spread from human to human.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls C. gattii an “emerging infection” in the U.S. and reported more than 100 documented infections in the country between 2004 and 2011. NBC News upped the ante and said as of June, 171 cases have been identified, including 25 cases in eight states outside of the Northwest.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Trees Nailed as the Source of Mystery Infections (by Nancy Shute, NPR)

Deadly Fungal Disease Detected Outside the Pacific Northwest (by JoNel Aleccia, NBC News)

New, Deadly Cryptococcus Gattii Fungus Found in U.S. (by Christine Dell'Amore, National Geographic News)

Cryptococcus Gattii (C. gattii) (California Department of Public Health)

Cryptococcal Meningitis: A Deadly Fungal Disease among People Living with HIV/AIDS (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) (pdf)

Cryptococcus Gattii VGIII Isolates Causing Infections in HIV/AIDS Patients in Southern California: Identification of the Local Environmental Source as Arboreal (PLOS Pathogens)

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