The bioscience sector, a continually growing part of the economy in northern Arizona, often brings our region national and even international acclaim.
It is likely to happen again. One of our local bioscience powerhouses recently released a study that may begin to unravel the mystery around a condition causing paralysis in children.
The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) has identified a polio-like virus as present in children diagnosed with Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM), a neuromuscular disorder which primarily affects those under 18 years of age with symptoms ranging from muscle weakness to paralysis.
“This is a condition that was pretty rare and then there was an outbreak in 2014,” said David Engelthaler, Co-Director and Associate Professor of the Pathogen and Microbiome Division at TGen North in Flagstaff.
That year, the Centers for Disease Control began tracking the illness and saw a pattern of more serious outbreaks every two years. In 2018, there were more than 200 cases across 22 states.
TGen became involved in the fall of 2016 when Arizona and Maricopa County officials – facing 11 possible cases of AFM in a Phoenix-area hospital – asked TGen to do an analysis of respiratory samples from several of the children.
Over the next few months, TGen threw “the entire genomic kitchen sink” at the problem. Since there is no test for the condition, TGen ran numerous sequencing analyses to find a common factor that could help explain the illnesses.
In the three confirmed cases and one suspected case that TGen was able to get appropriate samples from, scientists discovered that EV-D86, a non-polio enterovirus, was present.
Engelthaler, who was the senior author of the study on the discovery, says there is still a lot of work to be done to move from this initial identification to developing the protocols that could eventually test for, treat and possibly prevent the illness.
TGen has developed multiple new tests to detect the presence of EV-D68 in samples. Part of the reason for publishing the study was to help the scientific community build up more evidence about the illness and its cause.
“Right now the CDC hasn’t identified this enterovirus as a disease-causing pathogen,” he said. “It’s important to get that stamp of approval because until then, doctors won’t be asking to test for it, and it will be risky for companies or the National Institutes of Health to dedicate resources to develop a vaccine.”
Time is of the essence, however, he added.
“Our concern is that the epidemiology of this disease is that outbreaks are more pronounced every two years,” he said. “We wanted to get these findings out there so the scientific and public health communities can work towards solutions in 2019 and be ready for 2020.”
You can read the abstract of the TGen’s study, which was published last month in mBio, the peer-reviewed scientific journal of the American Society for Microbiology, here.