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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: Testing for Valley Fever Through DNA

The symptoms of Valley Fever can present like the flu: headache, chest pain, cough, fever. But scientists are still uncertain why some people become extremely ill – or even die - and others live with it for years symptom-free. Now, a team of Flagstaff biologists is developing a DNA-based test to detect the fungus.

“So, basically we’ve developed specific probes that target the DNA specifically of coccidioidomycosis, that’s the proper name of the organism,” says Bridget Barker of the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute. “So, as the organism is growing it’s just producing DNA, just by its natural process and so we can detect that with a very specific probe that won’t detect other fungus, that won’t detect other bacteria or your own DNA. It’s very specific for the Valley Fever fungus”

Barker says the younger a person is when exposed to Valley Fever, the stronger the immune system is in keeping it at bay. Youth, in a way, is basically its own vaccination, generally securing life-long protection. But, Barker cautions:

“That being said, we don’t understand if this fungus, if these organisms remain viable inside the lung tissue and so when you’re 50, 60 years old, you’re potentially undergoing immunotherapy, so for cancer, for other conditions where your immune system is being suppressed, it’s possible that the fungus could actually start growing again. Hopefully that’s not the case, but we really need to investigate it to understand it,” she says.

Barker says the DNA test is currently in the FDA approval process. When it does become available to the public, she believes it will lead to quicker diagnosis of Valley Fever and save lives.

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