UC Merced joins valley fever fight

University to collaborate with Children's Hospital on research

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comMarch 14, 2013 

— UC Merced will collaborate with Children's Hospital Central California on valley fever research.

Valley fever, also known as coccidioidomycosis, is a disease caused by a fungus called Coccidioides immitis and it starts in the lungs, but can spread to other organs in the body and the bones.

It is highly prevalent in the Central Valley and parts of Arizona.

The fungal disease is a huge burden for people in the Central Valley, said James McCarty, who heads the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Unit at Children's Hospital in Madera.

"It's not well understood, especially in children," he said. "I think we need to learn more about it and how to better treat it. This is our problem here in the valley, and I think we as advocates for children and adults have to do what we can to better understand (the disease). It's our duty to do what we can to focus on our local population."

There are three research projects in the works, but so far, only one of them has funding.

The research projects include one to better understand the immune response in people with valley fever, said David Ojcius, a professor at UC Merced.

This pilot research project has received a small amount of seed funding from UC Merced's Health Sciences Research Institute and Children's Hospital. Blood samples from patients will be used for this study.

"Long term, our goal would be to use this information for the design of a specific vaccine," said Ojcius, who has done research on Aspergillosis, which is a fungal disease similar to valley fever.

"I was already interested in fungal infections," he said.

Those involved see this project as promising because they will have access to clinical samples from Children's Hospital, and science and immunology have advanced in the last couple of years.

"We are better able to look at things today than 10 years ago," McCarty said.

Ojcius believes they will be able to publish results from this project in a relatively short time.

"We hope to use those preliminary results to apply for more funding," he said, adding that researchers plan to seek funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Ojcius and McCarty are writing a review article on valley fever for the Journal of Microbes and Infection. They plan to submit it this summer.

There's also interest to work on two other projects related to valley fever, Ojcius said, but right now, they are in the early planning stages.

One of those projects would study all the different strains of the fungal pathogen. This kind of study hasn't been done before with valley fever, he said.

McCarty said there's a number of patients at Children's Hospital from whom they have grown coccidioides evidence from bone and lung specimens, among others.

"We've studied some of those," he said.

That will help better understand the response of humans to this organism, McCarty explained.

The other project that is being discussed would be an environmental study of soil samples in certain parts of the Central Valley, said Trevor Hirst, executive director of UC Merced's Health Sciences Research Institute.

"The long-term goal for that would be to be able to tie that kind of reporting to the air quality reports that we get on a daily basis," he said.

Although the projects involve basic research, McCarty said, the hope is that the work will contribute to the development of a vaccine in the long term. "You have to start somewhere," he said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.


Special Report Online

For past stories in an occasional series exploring the startling rise of valley fever cases, the science of studying the disease, the high costs to patients and taxpayers, the weak federal and private interest in funding treatments and vaccines, and the public health response, go to www.reportingonhealth.org/valleyfever.

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