B.C. scientists to help American researchers study deadly fungus

A Vancouver-based working group tasked with learning more about a deadly fungus discovered on Central Vancouver Island 10 years ago is partnering with American researchers who found a similar strain of the fungus in patients in Oregon and Washington.

In 1999, Rathtrevor Park in Parksville was ground zero for the discovery of cryptococcus gattii, a fungus that caused respiratory issues in humans and companion animals that, if left untreated, could lead to paralysis or death.

Since its discovery, about 200 people have suffered the effects of the fungus with 19 deaths reported on Vancouver Island. Symptoms start off as flu-like symptoms that persist over several weeks. If left untreated, the lungs and central nervous system become affected.

In 2001, the B.C. Cryptococcal Working Group, led by Dr. Karen Bartlett, was formed to study how the fungus, originally thought prefer more tropical climates, arrived here.

With the emergence of recent patient cases in nearby U.S. states, the working group has been called on to help American researchers study the environment there for signs of the fungus.

"Where our research is focusing now is helping researchers in Washington and Oregon do similar types of studies we've done here to look for the organism in the environment," said Bartlett. "We've learned a lot over the last few years and now we're trying to apply the lessons we've learned not only to continue to make sure people who might have the disease are properly treated, that's always the number one priority, but to understand what else could be happening here and gain better knowledge of how the organism might be established in the environment."

Bartlett said the new cases, which are a new genotype of cryptococcus gattii not found on Vancouver Island, cannot likely be attributed to the fungus spreading from a single source point, but its discovery is due to a "microshift in the environment."

"It's easy to paint the picture that because we found it first on Vancouver Island that it has spread to the U.S. and it's all our fault. The picture that is now emerging suggests that is not the case," said Bartlett. "It makes it an even more interesting story than it was before because it supports more of the concept that a microshift, I won't call it global warming, happening at the level of this particular microorganism that is in the environment. The organism has probably been here, and by here I mean in Cascadia, longer than we first thought because there were no background studies."

Health effects are not contagious. Along with people, the fungus has also been known infect domestic animals such as cats, dogs, horses and birds, as well as porpoises.

Originally thought to be harboured in trees, cryptococcus gattii is now known to be prolific in soil, and can be passively transported on the soles of people's shoes or the feet of animals. It can become airborne due to human activities, such as disturbing soil during construction.

It is suspected that by now, most Vancouver Island residents have inhaled the fungus with no health consequences, and medical cases have plateaued over the last several years because doctors and veterinarians are better able to diagnose it and treat it before the patient is hospitalized.

To determine its findings of how cryptococcus gattii arrived in the central Island and how it affected people's health, the working group was able to cross-reference public health records, examine B.C. Centre for Disease Control records and perform extensive environmental sampling that resulted in a multi-pronged approach to better understanding the fungus.

That approach will be adopted to assist American researchers learn more about their unique genome of the organism.

"It has taken them longer to associate cases with this organism because they don't have the same kind of linkages that we have available to us here," said Bartlett. "Now we know there is this novel type in clinical samples in Oregon, so it will be very interesting to see if we can make that connection and find the organism in the environment."

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