[Source: TGen] – The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the Arizona Department of Health Services have been awarded a highly competitive Arizona Biomedical Research Commission (ABRC) grant to study the genome of the fungus that causes Valley Fever, a respiratory illness caused by the inhalation of fungal spores that live in the soils of the desert southwest. This research will result in new analytical tools that will help determine where Valley Fever comes from, how transmission occurs, and a way to link cases to sites of exposure. This information may lead to important public health interventions to potentially limit the spread of disease.
Valley Fever, also known as Coccidioides, is estimated to result in over 100,000 infections every year, mostly in Arizona. Over the last two years, Arizona has experienced a dramatic surge in the number of cases. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the number of reported Valley Fever cases hit a record high last year, with 5,535 cases in Arizona – up 57 percent from 2005. The cause for this surge is not well understood, but may be related to a combination of increased construction in virgin desert, an increase in new residents from other places in the country that don’t have Valley Fever, and changing climate patterns. “Valley Fever may be the most important infectious disease in Arizona, in terms of sheer numbers of infections,” said David Engelthaler, the Director of Programs for TGen North, and the former State Epidemiologist for Arizona. “This grant will allow for our researchers to explore the Valley Fever genome in a way that has never been done before.”
TGen North, the Pathogen Genomics Division of TGen, is located in Flagstaff, Arizona. Under the direction of Dr. Paul Keim, a national expert on pathogen genomics, the TGen North team is working to develop new clinical diagnostic tools to rapidly identify Valley Fever cases. “This important Valley Fever grant is a step in the right direction,” said Dr. Keim. “However, the need for research on this disease far outweighs the funding available. Because Valley Fever is mostly contained to the southwest, it does not show up on the federal radar screen. This is an Arizona problem and it will take and Arizona solution. The ABRC is to be commended for helping to take this issue head on.” The total funding from ABRC will be $300,000 over the next two years. TGen and the Arizona Department of Health Services will collaborate on both the Coccidioides genome exploration project and new diagnostic development.
“This is an important step in combating Arizona’s epidemic,” said Susan Gerard, Director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. “Today’s announcement shows Arizona is serious about addressing this health problem. Much more work is ahead of us, but this is a great start.”
The Valley Fever Center for Excellence (VFCE) in Tucson, Arizona, has also promised its support for these studies. The VFCE is the site of ongoing studies for new drugs and vaccines for Valley Fever.