August 14, 2014

Valley fever research moves forward at UC Merced

Recently, researchers with the university’s Health Sciences Research Institute received approval to conduct patient studies at Children’s Hospital Central California in Madera. Researchers will study the blood of 30 patients with Valley Fever to understand why it affects immune systems differently.

Researchers at UC Merced are moving forward with two research projects that aim to better understand Valley fever in the San Joaquin Valley.

The university’s Health Sciences Research Institute recently received approval and funding to conduct patient studies at Children’s Hospital Central California in Madera. Researchers will study the blood of 30 pediatric patients with Valley fever to understand the immune system’s response to the disease.

David Ojcius, a professor of molecular biology at UC Merced, said the long-term goal is to develop a vaccine. Ojcius expects to have samples from the first round of patients sometime this month.

Valley fever, also known as the “silent epidemic,” is an infection of the lungs caused by coccidioides, a fungal parasite found in soil. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fungus is common in dry, low rainfall areas of the United States, such as the San Joaquin Valley. According to researchers, Valley fever is an especially big problem in the southern counties of Central California. Places such as Avenal and Bakersfield are known to have a high infection rate.

In Merced, a lower incidence is observed but that may be attributed to improper diagnosis, researchers said. Valley fever is also common in desertlike regions of Arizona, Nevada, Texas and New Mexico.

Valley fever occurs when microscopic fungal spores are inhaled. Most cases will result in no symptoms or mild influenzalike symptoms, but can also result in fevers and pneumonia. More severe cases can lead to death. The CDC reports that researchers estimate more than 150,000 people a year are affected by Valley fever, although most cases go undiagnosed.

Although Valley fever is not contagious, it is of special concern in years following drought and during shifts of weather patterns, UC Merced researchers said.

In May, coccidioides, the fungus that causes Valley fever, was found in south-central Washington for the first time. However, Ojcius explained that the spreading and finding of coccidioides does not necessarily mean it will result in incidences of Valley fever.

Because of its geographic expansion, the disease is gaining traction. In June the U.S. Food and Drug Administration added the fungus that causes Valley fever to the list of pathogens eligible under the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now Act.

Researchers at UC Merced hope this new light on the disease will bring funding for additional research.

“There is now interest about Valley fever on a national level,” said Katrina Hoyer, professor of molecular biology at UC Merced. “We’re hearing rumblings on some federal money.”

But in order to be competitive for additional funding, researchers must show progress in their research.

According to Ojcius, UC Merced is the ideal place for research on Valley fever. The location and environment gives researchers access to Valley fever patients, and the staff is well-rounded and possesses the necessary expertise, Ojcius said.

“Our scientists are poised to do this research,” he said. “Here on campus we can attack it from different angles.”

Another UC Merced research project looks at the psycho-social issues faced by Valley fever patients and their families.

Erin Gaab, a postdoctoral researcher in health psychology at UC Merced, leads the pediatric Valley fever research project. Gaab and a team of 13 undergraduate research assistants interview children and families who have been diagnosed with the illness. The purpose of this research, according to Gaab, is to better understand the quality of life and psychological functioning of Valley fever patients in the region.

One of the biggest issues is that not all clinicians know how to identify Valley fever because so little is known, Gaab said. While gathering data, Gaab has noticed that many families across the Central Valley will travel to Children’s Hospital Central California to be diagnosed and treated.

Currently, there is no cure for Valley fever, but more severe cases are treated with antifungal medications. “Different patients are treated with different combos of (antifungal medications) depending on their symptoms, severity and age,” Gaab said.

Gaab said she plans to complete the quantitative part of her research by April 2015.

The next step, according to researchers, is investing in a biosafety level 3 facility, needed to isolate dangerous biological agents and avoid contagion. According to researchers, the BSL-3 lab is part of UC Merced’s 2020 Project, an initiative to develop and expand the university’s teaching, research and housing space.

“We need a BSL-3 lab in order to work with the live pathogen,” Ojcius said. “We can handle patient samples, as the ones from Children’s Hospital, without a BSL-3, but cannot do obvious and easy experiments on the biology of the fungus or the immune response to infection without having the live pathogen.”

Researchers also plan to organize interventions at UC Merced because the first step, according to them, is to make people more aware of the illness.

Next month, researchers will host a Valley Fever Awareness Day on campus. The event will aim to educate students and community members who have never heard of Valley fever. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 16 in the California Room. Anyone with questions about Valley Fever Awareness Day can contact Gaab at egaab@ucmerced.edu.

For more information on Valley fever research, people can also go to the Valley Fever UC Network page at http://valleyfever.campuscms.ucmerced.edu.

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