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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 29 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 35
13-year-old girl's science project IDs fungus threat to HIV patients
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13-year-old girl's science project IDs fungus threat to HIV patients

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A 13-year-old girl's summer science project helped identify the source of fungal infections that have affected HIV patients in Southern California for decades.

Elan Filler, the daughter of UCLA infectious disease specialist Dr. Scott Filler, was looking for a summer science project. Her father contacted an old friend and research colleague, Dr. Joseph Heitmen, Chair of Duke University's Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Department. The two friends recommended that Elan research a fungus native to the Los Angeles area.

She then collected 109 swabs from more than 30 tree species and 58 soil samples, grew and isolated the fungus in question, Cryptococcus, and then sent those specimens to Heitman. He, in turn, had Dr. Deborah Springer sequence the fungus's DNA and compare her findings to those obtained from HIV/AIDS patients' fungal infections.

Springer was surprised to find that specimens from three of the tree species were almost identical genetically with the patient specimens.

One variety of Cryptococcus - Cryptococcus gatii - causes lung and brain infections to which HIV patients are especially susceptible. In fact, C. gatii is reportedly responsible for one-third of all AIDS-related deaths.

Springer's study, which appears in the August 21 issue of PLOS Pathogens, found strong genetic evidence that three tree species - Canary Island pine, Pohutukawa, and American sweetgum - can serve as environmental hosts for C. gatii and become sources for human infections.

'Just as people who travel to South America are told to be careful about drinking the water, people who visit other areas like California, the Pacific Northwest, and Oregon need to be aware that they are at risk for developing a fungal infection, especially if their immune system is compromised,' Springer said.

The researchers also found that the C. gattii isolated from the environment were fertile, reproducing either by sexual or asexual reproduction.

'That finding is important for long-term prevalence in the environment, because this fungal pathogen will be able to grow, reproduce, disperse spores, and serve as a source of ongoing infections,' Springer added.

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The woman who found the HIV virus:
Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi at Fred Hutchinson

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