“The Fever” by Sonia Shah

Malaria is one of mankind’s most ancient scourges. A century after the discovery of its cause, various species of the parasite Plasmodium, humanity still remains in its deadly grip in many areas of the world. Malaria is estimated to have caused 225 million illnesses and almost 800,000 deaths in 2009, making it one of the top infectious disease killers. Many of these deaths occurred in children under the age of five.

Shah traces the history of malaria from the introduction of the parasite into the human population to modern-day controversies about malaria treatment, research, and funding. It’s a fast-paced read; informative but never dry. Indeed, Shah makes much use of metaphor; sometimes, to the detriment of the scientific narrative, in my opinion. However, that’s more of a minor issue to me.

Shah begins the book with an anecdote about her own childhood as an American visiting her relatives in India; sleeping under a bed net while her cousins sleep in the open, fearing mosquitoes, and India, and being ashamed of her fears. She notes later that, when her family hears she is writing a book about malaria, they ask her why–to them, it seems as silly as writing a book about the common cold. Shah notes this several times throughout the book–for example, explaining that many in malaria-endemic regions, people would rather use their bednets for fishing than to protect from mosquitoes, so while programs which deliver such nets can tout high numbers of bednets distributed it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who receives one is using them correctly.

Indeed, much of the book is spent discussing the limitations and missteps of anti-malarial programs, past and present, from issues of mosquito resistance to pesticides, to parasite resistance to chemotherapy. Another repeated thread is political will, or lack thereof, in anti-malarial programs, and the ping-pong that is played by many funding agencies. When programs demonstrate success and malaria is reduced, there is little will to continue such programs–which may be hampered in any case by the emergence of resistant mosquitoes or parasites. It’s a messy business, and today’s programs don’t seem to be much better off than those carried out in the previous century.

Shah’s book is a thoughtful read for anyone interested in global health–not only for the history of Plasmodium‘s detection and eventual proof as the cause of malaria (after many false starts), but also for the thoughtful descriptions of global health programs carried out by outsiders throughout the decades, and possible ways to change these and avoid repeating the mistakes already made by predecessors.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS): history and implications

Part One

It appears that the E. coli O104 sproutbreak is starting to wind down, with more than 3,500 cases diagnosed to date and 39 deaths. Though sprouts remain the key source of the bacterium, a recent report also documents that human carriers helped to spread the organism (via H5N1 blog). In this case, it was a food service employee working at a catering company, who spread infection to at least 20 people before she even realized she was infected.

As with many infectious diseases, there are potential lingering sequelae of infection, which can occur weeks to years after the acute infection has cleared up. Like almost 800 others involved in this outbreak, the woman who unwittingly infected others via food developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. We now know that the most common cause of HUS are bacteria such as STEC (“shiga toxin-producing E. coli“); the “shiga toxin” that they produce inhibits protein synthesis in the host and cause cell death. This can have systemic effects, and leads to clotting in affected organs–most commonly the kidneys, but other organs can also be affected. Dialysis may be necessary, and the infection can lead to kidney failure and the need for organ transplantation. There is already concern that, because of the huge numbers of HUS cases, many patients will have long-term kidney damage, including the potential need for additional organs (and possibly, re-vamping the way donations are made as well):

In previous E. coli outbreaks, up to half of patients who developed the kidney complication were still suffering from long-term side effects 10 to 20 years after first falling sick, including high blood pressure caused by dialysis.

In addition to possible kidney problems, people who have survived serious E. coli infections may also suffer from neurological damage, as the bacteria may have eaten away at blood vessels in the brain. That could mean suffering from seizures or epilepsy years after patients recover from their initial illness.

While it’s common knowledge in the medical community now that STEC can lead to HUS, which can lead to chronic kidney issues, for many years, the link between E. coli and HUS was obscured. HUS first appears in the literature in 1955, but the link to STEC wasn’t confirmed until the early 1980’s. In the interim, myriad viruses and bacteria were examined, as well as genetic causes. (There are cases of HUS caused by host mutations and other etiologies, but they are much less common than HUS caused by STEC and related organisms). I’ll delve into the history of HUS and look at a few studies which examined alternative hypotheses of causation, until finally STEC was confirmed as the causative agent. I’ll also discuss what this means as far as discovering infectious causes of other “complex” and somewhat mysterious diseases whose causes are unknown, as HUS was a mere 30 years ago.

Part Two

The epidemiology of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) was murky for several decades after it was first defined in the literature in 1955. In the ensuing decades, HUS was associated with a number of infectious agents, leading to the general belief that it was a “multifactorial disease”–one that had components of genetics and environment, much like we think of multiple sclerosis today, for example.

Several HUS outbreaks made people think twice about that assumption, and look deeper into a potential infectious cause. A 1966 paper documented the first identified outbreak of HUS, which occurred in Wales. The researchers examined a number of possible environmental factors the patients may have had in common–including food, water, and various toxins–but came up empty. They sum up:

Since it is almost invariably preceded by a gastrointestinal or respiratory illness, it seems probable that it represents a response to an infection. Although Gianantonio et al. (1964) have identified one possible causative virus, it may be that various infective agents can initiate the syndrome.

This idea held throughout the next 20-odd years, as numerous studies looked at both environmental and genetic effects that may be leading to HUS. A 1975 paper examined HUS in families, suggesting that there may be two types of HUS (which we now know to be true–the genetic form is less often associated with diarrhea, and tends to have a worse prognosis as I mentioned yesterday). But still, no definitive cause for either.

There were also a number of studies testing individuals for many different types of pathogens. A 1974 paper enrolled patients in the Netherlands between 1965 and 1970, but one of the inclusion criteria was a “history of a prodromal illness in which gastrointestinal or respiratory tract symptoms were present.” The respiratory tract symptoms are mentioned in a number of papers, and were probably a red herring that sent people in search of the wrong pathogens for awhile. In this particular paper, they examined children for infection with a number of viral and bacterial pathogens, using either culture or serological methods (looking for antibodies which may suggest a recent infection). In that portion of the paper, they note a possible association with adenoviruses, but state that the data don’t support a bacterial infection–a viral etiology was deemed more likely. Regarding basic epidemiology, they did note a few small clusters of cases in families or villages, as well as a peak in cases in spring/summer–as well as an increasing number of cases from the first year of their study to the last. The epidemiology of HUS was starting to become clearer, and the syndrome appeared to be on the rise.

Even as additional case reports occasionally targeted foods as a precursor to HUS outbreaks, it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that HUS really started to come into focus. In 1977, a paper was published identifying the “Vero toxin”–a product of E. coli that caused cytotoxicity in Vero cells (a line of African green monkey kidney cells, commonly used in research). Researchers were closing in.

Part Three

I left off yesterday with the initial discovery of “Vero toxin,” a toxin produced by E. coli (also called “Shiga toxin” or “Shiga-like toxin”). Though this may initially seem unconnected to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the discovery of this cytotoxin paved the way for a clearer understanding of the etiology of this syndrome, as well as the mechanisms by which disease progressed. By the early 1980s, several lines of research pointed toward E. coli, and particularly O157:H7, as the main cause of HUS.

A 1982 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention MMWR report found a rare E. coli serotype, O157:H7, associated with hemorrhagic colitis following consumption of hamburgers. Similar results were reported in a 1983 Lancet paper, which found serotype O157 among their collection of verotoxin-producing strains. Another paper that same year from a Canadian group showed that O157:H7 was the second most common cytotoxic strain in their collection of over 2,000 E. coli isolates. The most common was serotype O26–more on that below. This paper also discussed an outbreak of hemorrhagic colitis that had occurred at a nursing home, with O157 identified as the cause. The evidence was mounting, but these were small studies and not always associated with HUS. Still, these papers collectively were suggestive of a connection between E. coli infection (especially with strains that produced the shiga/vero toxin), hemorrhagic colitis, and HUS.

In 1985, a new study came out which really helped to seal the deal. Rather than look only at cases in isolation, the authors designed a case-control study looking at patients with “idiopathic HUS” (in other words, HUS of unknown origin which started with diarrhea, rather than the other variant lacking this symptom). They ended up with 40 patients who qualified. They then picked a single control for each patient, matching them on age, sex, and season of the year. The controls were children either diagnosed with Campylobacter enterocolitis (and therefore, enterocolitis of a known cause) or were healthy children either from a local daycare center, or kids coming in for elective surgeries. Stools were collected from each group and tested for a variety of organisms, including vero toxin-producing E. coli (VTEC, also known as STEC for the shiga-like toxin nomenclature). They also tested for activity of the toxin itself in fecal samples. Finally, in the case patients, attempts were made to collect what are called “acute” and “convalescent” blood samples. These are samples taken when the patient is actually sick (“acute”), and then ones taken a few weeks later (“convalescent), to look at the presence of antibodies in the blood. If it was an infection by the suspected organism (in this case, STEC/VTEC), you should see a rise in antibodies the host produces that target the organism–for these kids, they were looking for antibodies to the shiga/vero toxin.

They found either vero toxin or VTEC in 60% of the case patients, but in none of the controls. Of the VTEC isolated, serotypes included O26, O111, O113, O121, and O157. For the latter, it was the most common type isolated (25% of the VTEC found). Of the patients who were negative for both VTEC and vero toxin, from those who had paired blood samples (12/16 of the remaining cases), 6 did show a rise in antibody titer against the vero toxin–suggesting they had been exposed and were producing antibodies to neutralize the toxin. So, for those keeping score, 75% of the cases had evidence of VTEC infection either by culture or serological techniques. It may not have been the nail in the coffin and there are certainly some flaws (the diversity of controls and lack of analysis of blood titers for the controls being two that pop out at me), but this paper went a long way toward establishing VTEC/STEC as the cause of HUS, which has been subsequently confirmed by many, many studies worldwide.

The most common vehicles of transmission of these organisms have also come into clearer focus since the 1950s, with almost all HUS/STEC outbreaks associated with food products; most common is still the O157:H7 serotype. O157 is a bit unique, in that this strain typically doesn’t ferment sorbitol–as such, this is often used as a diagnostic feature that sets it apart from “normal” E. coli. However, as I mentioned above (and as the current outbreak has shown), a number of other serotypes besides O157:H7 can also cause HUS. Most of these don’t appear to be as commonly associated with outbreaks–rather, they may more commonly cause sporadic disease where fewer people may become sick. Because these don’t have the unique sorbitol-non-fermenting feature, these may be overlooked at a diagnostic lab. There are assays that can detect the Shiga-like toxin directly (actually, we now know there are multiple families of related toxins), but not all labs use these routinely, so it’s likely that the incidence of infection due to non-O157 STEC is higher than we currently know.

HUS was once a mysterious, “complex” disease whose perceived etiology shifted almost overnight, as scientific advances go. What implications does this have for other diseases whose etiology is similarly described as HUS was 50 years ago? More on that tomorrow.

Part Four

As I’ve laid out in parts 1-3, the realization that a fairly simple, toxin-carrying bacterium could cause a “complex” and mysterious disease like hemolytic uremic syndrome came only with 30 years’ of scientific investigation and many false starts and misleading results. Like many of these investigations, the true cause was found due to a combination of hard work, novel ways of thinking, and simple serendipity–being able to connect the dots in a framework where the dots didn’t necessarily line up as expected, and removing extraneous dots as necessary. It’s not an easy task, particularly when we’ve had mostly culture-based methods to rely on since the dawn of microbiology.

If you read start digging around in the evolutionary medicine literature, you’ll see that one oft-repeated tenet is that many more “chronic” and “lifestyle” diseases are actually caused by microbes than we currently realize. (I’ll note that there is active disagreement here in the field–one reason noted is that many of these diseases would decrease one’s fitness and thus they are unlikely to be genetic, but many of them also have onset later in life than the prime reproductive years, so–still controversial). But whether you agree on the evolutionary reasoning or not, I think it’s safe to say that those who make this claim (like the Neese & Williams book I linked) are probably right on the overall assertion that more and more of these “lifestyle/genetics” diseases are going to be actually microbial in cause than we currently realize.

Why do I agree with this claim? History is a great indicator. Many infectious diseases were thought to be due to complex interactions of genetics (or “breeding,” “lineage,” etc.) with “lifestyle.” Think of syphilis and tuberculosis in the Victorian era. Syphilis (and many other diseases which we know now to be sexually-transmitted infections) was considered a disease which affected mainly the lower social classes (“bad breeding”), and was thought to be rooted in both family history as well as an over-indulgence in sex or masturbation. Tuberculosis, because it affected those throughout the income spectrum, was still blamed on “poor constitution” in the lower classes, but was a disease of the “sensitive” and “artistic” in the upper classes. It was also thought to be due to influences of climate in combination with genetics. Or, look to more recent examples of Helicobacter pylori and gastric ulcers, which were also ascribed to dietary habits and stress for a good 30 years before their infectious nature was eventually proven. And from that same era, HIV/AIDS–which even today, some are still all too ready to write off as merely a behavioral disease, rather than an infectious one.

So, we still view many of these diseases of unknown etiology as multi-factorial, “complex” diseases. And undoubtedly, genetic predisposition does play a role in almost every infectious disease, so I’m not writing off any kind of host/pathogen interplay in the development of some of these more rare sequelae, such as HUS as a consequence of a STEC infection. But looking back over history, it’s amazing how many diseases which we view now as having a documented infectious cause were studied for years by researchers thinking that the disease was the result of exposure to a toxin, or diet, or behavior, or a combination of all three.

I’ve mentioned the example of multiple sclerosis in previous posts. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease; the body produces antibodies that attack and eventually destroy parts of the myelin sheath covering our nerves. The cause of MS, like HUS 40 years ago, is unknown, though it’s thought to be a combination of genetics and environmental influences. Going through the literature, it seems like almost everything has been implicated as playing a causal role at one point or another: pesticides, environmental mercury, hormones, various other “toxins,” and a whole host of microbes, including Chlamydia pneumoniae, measles, mumps, Epstein-Barr virus, varicella zoster (chickenpox), herpes simplex viruses, other herpes families viruses (HHV-6 and HHV-8), even canine distemper virus. They’ve done this looking at both microbe culture (from blood, brain tissue, CNS, etc.) as well as using serology and DNA/RNA amplification in various body sites. None have shown any strong, repeatable links to the development of MS–much like the spurious associations that were seen with adenovirus and HUS.

Although no microbial agent has been convincingly implicated to date, there are tantalizing hints that MS is caused by an infectious agent. There have been “outbreaks” of MS; the most famous occurred in the Faroe Islands in the 1940s. Studies of migrants show that the risks of developing MS seem to be tied to exposures in childhood, suggesting a possible exposure to an infectious agent as a kid. And one of the most common mouse models used to study MS has the disease induced by infection with a virus called Theiler’s murine encephalitis virus (TMEV). If it can happen in mice, why not humans?

It might seem implausible that infection with some microbe could lead to the eventual neurological outcomes of MS, but again, examples abound of weird connections between microbes and health outcomes. For STEC, it might not be intuitively obvious at first glance how a fecal organism could be a cause of kidney failure. The respiratory bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes usually causes throat infections (“strep throat”), but if left untreated, it can also cause kidney damage (glomerulonephritis) or even heart failure due to rheumatic heart disease. A microbial cause of MS could lie in a virus, bacterium, parasite, or fungus–maybe one that we haven’t even discovered yet, but that perhaps will pop up as we learn more and more about our metagenome. Perhaps 30 years down the road, the way we view many of these “complex” diseases will look as short-sighted as it does looking back at old HUS papers from today’s vantage point.

Epidemiology and social media: conference fail

I have written and deleted this post. Twice. But damn it, it needs to be said.

I’m here in charming Montreal for the North American Congress of Epidemiology. It’s a good-sized meeting, as far as epi meetings go. The site notes that it’s a joint effort between four major Epi organizations: The American College of Epidemiology (ACE); The Society for Epidemiologic Research; the Epi section of the American Public Health Association, and The Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Collectively, those associations represent a lot of epidemiologists.

The conference started off well. The first night kicked off with a movie about bioterrorism preparedness followed by a panel discussion. Great–movies! Engaging public in novel ways! Love.

On to Wednesday, when the first real sessions begin. The opening plenary discussed Science, skepticism, and society. Great again–this is a perfect warm-up. Later that afternoon, there was another session titled “Communicating Epidemiology: The Changing Landscape”. I was happily surprised when the room for this was pretty packed, as these types of meetings tend to be heavy on chronic disease epi and epidemiology methods. However, I was disappointed with the content. While the first talk was to give “a snapshot of how premier science journals experiment with features that blur old distinctions: blogs, data repositories, standard-setting, and advance online publications,” almost none of that was discussed–instead, it focused on how Nature Genetics was doing…something….about datasets. (Unfortunately I don’t have great notes and was at this point still trying to get the wifi to work; more on that later). Either way, it wasn’t anything as advertised in the description I quoted above, and it discussed *only* Nature Genetics–surely there are more “premier science journals” than just NG? (Why only NG discussed? The talk was by Myles Axton, who is the Editor).

Next on tap was Jennifer Loukissas, communications manager at the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, to discuss “When epidemiologists talk to press and public.” However, there really wasn’t any “public” involved–it was a media training session. Period. Use soundbites, stay on target, think about your message, control the interview, call the journalist back in 5 minutes if you need to collect yourself, etc. Good stuff for scientists to know, to be sure, but isn’t there a world out there beyond talking to journalists? More on that later as well.

The third talk was Jonathan Samet of USC, on “Communicating around conflict.” He’s recently worked on the WHO cell phone-and-cancer opinion that was released earlier this month, and essentially extended what Loukissas began as far as what to and not to say to interviewers, particularly in controverisal areas.

This was not exactly my idea of science communication in 2011, especially since everyone agreed at the beginning of the session that scientists were terrible communicators, our messages frequently ended up getting distorted, all the typical canards. Merely telling scientists to stop being so jargon-y and prepare soundbites–while necessary–isn’t going to solve these problems.

During the (very brief) Q&A, I asked about scientists directly communicating with the public–via their websites, blogs, web video, etc., to get their own message out there and not have to worry about journalists messing it up. Loukissas was the main one to answer the question, saying–incredibly–she hadn’t thought about that.

It was all I could do to keep myself from saying “d’oh!,” complete with facepalm.

The reality is that scientists don’t have to be passive any longer, relying only on reporters to translate their work for them in order to send it along to the public. We should have our soundbites, but realize that we can go beyond our manuscripts (I’ve had ones recently trimmed down to 1200 or even 800(!) words). We can write about the research if it’s behind a paywall. We can write about the realities of doing our work as a jumping-off point after a journalist covers your research, and go beyond the dry data that goes into the paper. We can go beyond the press release and talk about what may be interesting to us about our findings, but maybe aren’t the “meat” of the publication, or are secondary to the “main point” that you’ve worked on for your soundbites and want to emphasize to interested journalists. We can elaborate on interesting research done by others, to discuss subtleties that you can’t fit into a 20-minute interview.

And more.

Communication-wise, this meeting has unfortunately been a bit of a letdown. The science is interesting and there have been some great speakers, but I haven’t been able to share much of that because wifi wasn’t arranged for in the conference rooms. I have internet in my room ($14.95/day, of course), but the password from my hotel room isn’t valid downstairs (something it took me almost a day and a half to find out, after getting the run-around from various people), and the organizers either didn’t care, didn’t think, or couldn’t afford to allow attendees to use the wifi network in the hotel conference rooms. So while I was able to take conference notes from the American Society for Microbiology meeting right on Twitter and share them with everyone via the conference hashtag, not so for this meeting. (ASM even had their own mobile app for smartphones).

The thing is, *epidemiologists need to be plugged into these kinds of things.* So many of the studies reported in the media have to do with epidemiological topics–cell phones and cancer, vaccines and autism, “chronic” lyme, does the internet really give you “popcorn brain”, just to take one current story from CNN. We can’t sit in our towers and just wait for a journalist to call us about those studies anymore–and why should we?

Last year, Craig McClain wrote about why scientists need to use Twitter. That post, while good, focuses mainly on the benefit to the scientist (though he does note that the public can also find information there). We need more of this. We need good, reliable information to be out there on the internet, freely available–and if that’s not possible in your academic publishing model, it’s still possible with a blog, or YouTube video, or basic website that you keep updated with recent news. Epidemiologists are certainly using social media and Google to explore disease; why not give back by wading out there and actually taking part in the conversation?

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 4: the bigger picture

As I’ve laid out this week (part 1, part 2, part 3), the realization that a fairly simple, toxin-carrying bacterium could cause a “complex” and mysterious disease like hemolytic uremic syndrome came only with 30 years’ of scientific investigation and many false starts and misleading results. Like many of these investigations, the true cause was found due to a combination of hard work, novel ways of thinking, and simple serendipity–being able to connect the dots in a framework where the dots didn’t necessarily line up as expected, and removing extraneous dots as necessary. It’s not an easy task, particularly when we’ve had mostly culture-based methods to rely on since the dawn of microbiology.

If you read start digging around in the evolutionary medicine literature, you’ll see that one oft-repeated tenet is that many more “chronic” and “lifestyle” diseases are actually caused by microbes than we currently realize. (I’ll note that there is active disagreement here in the field–one reason noted is that many of these diseases would decrease one’s fitness and thus they are unlikely to be genetic, but many of them also have onset later in life than the prime reproductive years, so–still controversial). But whether you agree on the evolutionary reasoning or not, I think it’s safe to say that those who make this claim (like the Neese & Williams book I linked) are probably right on the overall assertion that more and more of these “lifestyle/genetics” diseases are going to be actually microbial in cause than we currently realize.

Why do I agree with this claim? History is a great indicator. Many infectious diseases were thought to be due to complex interactions of genetics (or “breeding,” “lineage,” etc.) with “lifestyle.” Think of syphilis and tuberculosis in the Victorian era. Syphilis (and many other diseases which we know now to be sexually-transmitted infections) was considered a disease which affected mainly the lower social classes (“bad breeding”), and was thought to be rooted in both family history as well as an over-indulgence in sex or masturbation. Tuberculosis, because it affected those throughout the income spectrum, was still blamed on “poor constitution” in the lower classes, but was a disease of the “sensitive” and “artistic” in the upper classes. It was also thought to be due to influences of climate in combination with genetics. Or, look to more recent examples of Helicobacter pylori and gastric ulcers, which were also ascribed to dietary habits and stress for a good 30 years before their infectious nature was eventually proven. And from that same era, HIV/AIDS–which even today, some are still all too ready to write off as merely a behavioral disease, rather than an infectious one.

So, we still view many of these diseases of unknown etiology as multi-factorial, “complex” diseases. And undoubtedly, genetic predisposition does play a role in almost every infectious disease, so I’m not writing off any kind of host/pathogen interplay in the development of some of these more rare sequelae, such as HUS as a consequence of a STEC infection. But looking back over history, it’s amazing how many diseases which we view now as having a documented infectious cause were studied for years by researchers thinking that the disease was the result of exposure to a toxin, or diet, or behavior, or a combination of all three.

I’ve mentioned the example of multiple sclerosis in previous posts. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease; the body produces antibodies that attack and eventually destroy parts of the myelin sheath covering our nerves. The cause of MS, like HUS 40 years ago, is unknown, though it’s thought to be a combination of genetics and environmental influences. Going through the literature, it seems like almost everything has been implicated as playing a causal role at one point or another: pesticides, environmental mercury, hormones, various other “toxins,” and a whole host of microbes, including Chlamydia pneumoniae, measles, mumps, Epstein-Barr virus, varicella zoster (chickenpox), herpes simplex viruses, other herpes families viruses (HHV-6 and HHV-8), even canine distemper virus. They’ve done this looking at both microbe culture (from blood, brain tissue, CNS, etc.) as well as using serology and DNA/RNA amplification in various body sites. None have shown any strong, repeatable links to the development of MS–much like the spurious associations that were seen with adenovirus and HUS.

Although no microbial agent has been convincingly implicated to date, there are tantalizing hints that MS is caused by an infectious agent. There have been “outbreaks” of MS; the most famous occurred in the Faroe Islands in the 1940s. Studies of migrants show that the risks of developing MS seem to be tied to exposures in childhood, suggesting a possible exposure to an infectious agent as a kid. And one of the most common mouse models used to study MS has the disease induced by infection with a virus called Theiler’s murine encephalitis virus (TMEV). If it can happen in mice, why not humans?

It might seem implausible that infection with some microbe could lead to the eventual neurological outcomes of MS, but again, examples abound of weird connections between microbes and health outcomes. For STEC, it might not be intuitively obvious at first glance how a fecal organism could be a cause of kidney failure. The respiratory bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes usually causes throat infections (“strep throat”), but if left untreated, it can also cause kidney damage (glomerulonephritis) or even heart failure due to rheumatic heart disease. A microbial cause of MS could lie in a virus, bacterium, parasite, or fungus–maybe one that we haven’t even discovered yet, but that perhaps will pop up as we learn more and more about our metagenome. Perhaps 30 years down the road, the way we view many of these “complex” diseases will look as short-sighted as it does looking back at old HUS papers from today’s vantage point.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 3

I left off yesterday with the initial discovery of “Vero toxin,” a toxin produced by E. coli (also called “Shiga toxin” or “Shiga-like toxin”). Though this may initially seem unconnected to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the discovery of this cytotoxin paved the way for a clearer understanding of the etiology of this syndrome, as well as the mechanisms by which disease progressed. By the early 1980s, several lines of research pointed toward E. coli, and particularly O157:H7, as the main cause of HUS.

A 1982 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention MMWR report found a rare E. coli serotype, O157:H7, associated with hemorrhagic colitis following consumption of hamburgers. Similar results were reported in a 1983 Lancet paper, which found serotype O157 among their collection of verotoxin-producing strains. Another paper that same year from a Canadian group showed that O157:H7 was the second most common cytotoxic strain in their collection of over 2,000 E. coli isolates. The most common was serotype O26–more on that below. This paper also discussed an outbreak of hemorrhagic colitis that had occurred at a nursing home, with O157 identified as the cause. The evidence was mounting, but these were small studies and not always associated with HUS. Still, these papers collectively were suggestive of a connection between E. coli infection (especially with strains that produced the shiga/vero toxin), hemorrhagic colitis, and HUS.

In 1985, a new study came out which really helped to seal the deal. Rather than look only at cases in isolation, the authors designed a case-control study looking at patients with “idiopathic HUS” (in other words, HUS of unknown origin which started with diarrhea, rather than the other variant lacking this symptom). They ended up with 40 patients who qualified. They then picked a single control for each patient, matching them on age, sex, and season of the year. The controls were children either diagnosed with Campylobacter enterocolitis (and therefore, enterocolitis of a known cause) or were healthy children either from a local daycare center, or kids coming in for elective surgeries. Stools were collected from each group and tested for a variety of organisms, including vero toxin-producing E. coli (VTEC, also known as STEC for the shiga-like toxin nomenclature). They also tested for activity of the toxin itself in fecal samples. Finally, in the case patients, attempts were made to collect what are called “acute” and “convalescent” blood samples. These are samples taken when the patient is actually sick (“acute”), and then ones taken a few weeks later (“convalescent), to look at the presence of antibodies in the blood. If it was an infection by the suspected organism (in this case, STEC/VTEC), you should see a rise in antibodies the host produces that target the organism–for these kids, they were looking for antibodies to the shiga/vero toxin.

They found either vero toxin or VTEC in 60% of the case patients, but in none of the controls. Of the VTEC isolated, serotypes included O26, O111, O113, O121, and O157. For the latter, it was the most common type isolated (25% of the VTEC found). Of the patients who were negative for both VTEC and vero toxin, from those who had paired blood samples (12/16 of the remaining cases), 6 did show a rise in antibody titer against the vero toxin–suggesting they had been exposed and were producing antibodies to neutralize the toxin. So, for those keeping score, 75% of the cases had evidence of VTEC infection either by culture or serological techniques. It may not have been the nail in the coffin and there are certainly some flaws (the diversity of controls and lack of analysis of blood titers for the controls being two that pop out at me), but this paper went a long way toward establishing VTEC/STEC as the cause of HUS, which has been subsequently confirmed by many, many studies worldwide.

The most common vehicles of transmission of these organisms have also come into clearer focus since the 1950s, with almost all HUS/STEC outbreaks associated with food products; most common is still the O157:H7 serotype. O157 is a bit unique, in that this strain typically doesn’t ferment sorbitol–as such, this is often used as a diagnostic feature that sets it apart from “normal” E. coli. However, as I mentioned above (and as the current outbreak has shown), a number of other serotypes besides O157:H7 can also cause HUS. Most of these don’t appear to be as commonly associated with outbreaks–rather, they may more commonly cause sporadic disease where fewer people may become sick. Because these don’t have the unique sorbitol-non-fermenting feature, these may be overlooked at a diagnostic lab. There are assays that can detect the Shiga-like toxin directly (actually, we now know there are multiple families of related toxins), but not all labs use these routinely, so it’s likely that the incidence of infection due to non-O157 STEC is higher than we currently know.

HUS was once a mysterious, “complex” disease whose perceived etiology shifted almost overnight, as scientific advances go. What implications does this have for other diseases whose etiology is similarly described as HUS was 50 years ago? More on that tomorrow.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 2

As I mentioned yesterday, the epidemiology of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) was murky for several decades after it was first defined in the literature in 1955. In the ensuing decades, HUS was associated with a number of infectious agents, leading to the general belief that it was a “multifactorial disease”–one that had components of genetics and environment, much like we think of multiple sclerosis today, for example.

Several HUS outbreaks made people think twice about that assumption, and look deeper into a potential infectious cause. A 1966 paper documented the first identified outbreak of HUS, which occurred in Wales. The researchers examined a number of possible environmental factors the patients may have had in common–including food, water, and various toxins–but came up empty. They sum up:

Since it is almost invariably preceded by a gastrointestinal or respiratory illness, it seems probable that it represents a response to an infection. Although Gianantonio et al. (1964) have identified one possible causative virus, it may be that various infective agents can initiate the syndrome.

This idea held throughout the next 20-odd years, as numerous studies looked at both environmental and genetic effects that may be leading to HUS. A 1975 paper examined HUS in families, suggesting that there may be two types of HUS (which we now know to be true–the genetic form is less often associated with diarrhea, and tends to have a worse prognosis as I mentioned yesterday). But still, no definitive cause for either.

There were also a number of studies testing individuals for many different types of pathogens. A 1974 paper enrolled patients in the Netherlands between 1965 and 1970, but one of the inclusion criteria was a “history of a prodromal illness in which gastrointestinal or respiratory tract symptoms were present.” The respiratory tract symptoms are mentioned in a number of papers, and were probably a red herring that sent people in search of the wrong pathogens for awhile. In this particular paper, they examined children for infection with a number of viral and bacterial pathogens, using either culture or serological methods (looking for antibodies which may suggest a recent infection). In that portion of the paper, they note a possible association with adenoviruses, but state that the data don’t support a bacterial infection–a viral etiology was deemed more likely. Regarding basic epidemiology, they did note a few small clusters of cases in families or villages, as well as a peak in cases in spring/summer–as well as an increasing number of cases from the first year of their study to the last. The epidemiology of HUS was starting to become clearer, and the syndrome appeared to be on the rise.

Even as additional case reports occasionally targeted foods as a precursor to HUS outbreaks, it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that HUS really started to come into focus. In 1977, a paper was published identifying the “Vero toxin”–a product of E. coli that caused cytotoxicity in Vero cells (a line of African green monkey kidney cells, commonly used in research). Researchers were closing in.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 1

It appears that the E. coli O104 sproutbreak is starting to wind down, with more than 3,500 cases diagnosed to date and 39 deaths. Though sprouts remain the key source of the bacterium, a recent report also documents that human carriers helped to spread the organism (via H5N1 blog). In this case, it was a food service employee working at a catering company, who spread infection to at least 20 people before she even realized she was infected.

As with many infectious diseases, there are potential lingering sequelae of infection, which can occur weeks to years after the acute infection has cleared up. Like almost 800 others involved in this outbreak, the woman who unwittingly infected others via food developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. We now know that the most common cause of HUS are bacteria such as STEC (“shiga toxin-producing E. coli“); the “shiga toxin” that they produce inhibits protein synthesis in the host and cause cell death. This can have systemic effects, and leads to clotting in affected organs–most commonly the kidneys, but other organs can also be affected. Dialysis may be necessary, and the infection can lead to kidney failure and the need for organ transplantation. There is already concern that, because of the huge numbers of HUS cases, many patients will have long-term kidney damage, including the potential need for additional organs (and possibly, re-vamping the way donations are made as well):

In previous E. coli outbreaks, up to half of patients who developed the kidney complication were still suffering from long-term side effects 10 to 20 years after first falling sick, including high blood pressure caused by dialysis.

In addition to possible kidney problems, people who have survived serious E. coli infections may also suffer from neurological damage, as the bacteria may have eaten away at blood vessels in the brain. That could mean suffering from seizures or epilepsy years after patients recover from their initial illness.

While it’s common knowledge in the medical community now that STEC can lead to HUS, which can lead to chronic kidney issues, for many years, the link between E. coli and HUS was obscured. HUS first appears in the literature in 1955, but the link to STEC wasn’t confirmed until the early 1980’s. In the interim, myriad viruses and bacteria were examined, as well as genetic causes. (There are cases of HUS caused by host mutations and other etiologies, but they are much less common than HUS caused by STEC and related organisms). In future posts this week, I’ll delve into the history of HUS and look at a few studies which examined alternative hypotheses of causation, until finally STEC was confirmed as the causative agent. I’ll also discuss what this means as far as discovering infectious causes of other “complex” and somewhat mysterious diseases whose causes are unknown, as HUS was a mere 30 years ago.

In the lab–the year in review

Ah, classes are finally over. The last two summers I’ve taught a short, intense course in Applied Infectious Disease Epidemiology, condensing a semester’s worth of work into a week. It’s a fun course to teach, but exhausting–after teaching, I head back home or to the office to finish last-minute preparation for the next day’s talks and assignments, and by the time that’s done, the nightly student homework is rolling into my email inbox for me to grade and comment on for the next morning. By Friday, I feel like a zombie who hasn’t seen my family in a week.

But, it’s now wrapped up for another year, which gives me a small block of time to navel-gaze and reflect on the past year before diving back into more research (and starting prep for fall’s course, Introduction to Molecular Epidemiology).

First, this has been a Really Good Year. For those interested, we just put out a newsletter detailing all the events in the lab in 2010–3 federal grants received (the most recent one from USDA described here, and others from NIOSH and AHRQ), 3 PhD students graduated, 3 MS students graduated, 13 papers published and 15 conference presentations given. You can probably see why my blogging took a dip. However, all 3 PhD students have jobs, as does one MS student (the other 2 are continuing on to a PhD), so the graduates have also been successful–now just to wrap up all their papers…

This year marks the beginning of the new studies, meaning we’ll be enrolling and testing roughly 3,000 people this year around the state of Iowa, as well as carrying out molecular analysis of another couple thousand S. aureus isolates from the state’s diagnostic labs, and still carrying out some additional sampling on farms. It’s already an exciting (and busy) summer, with more to come in fall. We’re embarking on these studies with some new collaborators, and have some pilot projects coming to an end with a ton of manuscripts currently under review or in draft, so 2011 should hopefully be equally productive. Everything isn’t quite a well-oiled machine yet, but it’s definitely much closer this year than it was a year or two ago.