NAU researchers part of statewide Valley Fever Collaborative awarded $3M in research funds

 The Valley Fever Collaborative, a University of Arizona Health Sciences-led partnership with Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University, was awarded $3.1 million in funding by the Arizona Board of Regents to start an integrated, statewide research project to identify, characterize and map hotspots and routes of exposure for Valley fever, an important public health and economic problem in the Southwest.

This three-year collaborative includes multiple researchers in NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI).

Valley fever is an infectious disease that affects thousands of people in Arizona every year. It is caused by Coccidioides posadasii, a fungus that lives in the soil of areas with hot summers, mild winters and little rainfall, which includes much of Arizona. The fungal spores can be readily inhaled, which is how most Valley fever infections are believed to occur. Yet the amount of fungal burden in the soil and air, the degree to which these fungal spores travel, and the potential for new areas to be colonized with the organism are currently unknown.

“We know Arizona is responsible for two-thirds of all U.S. Valley fever infections, but just looking across the land we can’t tell which places the fungus grows or are the source of so many infections,” said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence in the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson and a member of the BIO5 Institute. “This study will try to connect the dots between strains that cause people to get sick, where in the land they come from and what it is about those hot spots that makes the fungus thrive. With this new information, we might prevent infections at work sites or even for everyone who lives here.”

This collaboration is critical in directly addressing the threat that Valley fever poses to all of Arizona, said Paul Keim, Regents’ professor of biology and executive director of PMI.

“The ABOR funding will accelerate the coordination of expertise at all three universities to understand and then attack Valley fever’s public health impact,” he said. “This is an amazing cross-disciplinary project that would be difficult to fund from other sources. Arizona can expect tangible benefits that improve the health and lives of our citizens.”

Six individual projects will take place using funding provided through Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. They are:

  • Detection of Coccidioides from air sampled at positive soil locations
    Bridget Barker, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at NAU, will lead a team of researchers who pair air-sampling devices with soil sampling at three statewide sites to detect seasonal patterns of Valley fever risk. The goal is to develop risk assessment models to guide land developers, agriculture and state planners. Barker is one of the leading Valley fever researchers in Arizona.
  • Genome analysis directly from the environment
    David Wagner, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at NAU, and Keim will establish a genomic database of environmental posadasii, which can be used to better understand and predictively model the environmental sources of Valley fever in Arizonans.
  • Toward a predictive model of Coccidioides hot spots and hot moments on the Arizona landscape: characteristics and dynamics of soils harboring Valley fever
    Led by Jon Chorover, professor and head of the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, researchers will combine soil sampling and laboratory geochemical, mineralogical and physical analyses with sensor array data from research sites. The goals are to identify soil characteristics most frequently associated with high prevalence of Coccidioides spores and determine the soil and ambient atmospheric conditions that promote the aerosolized suspension and movement of Coccidioides spores from those locations.
  • Identifying Valley fever hotspots from genetic clusters in patient specimens
    Galgiani will lead a team of researchers seeking to determine to what degree Valley fever human infections are due to hotspots in the environment in Arizona by investigating genetically coccidioidal isolates from infected patients in relation to environmental sequences and identifying genetic clusters.
  • Environmental detection, modeling, and genomics of Valley fever in Arizona
    Matthew Fraser, a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and Built Environment at ASU, and Pierre Herckes, a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences at ASU, will lead a project to collect and analyze particles in the air at locations near Valley fever hotspots to determine the physical and biological characteristics of particles and understand the nature of airborne transmission.
  • Geospatial modeling and visualization of diverse Valley fever data
    Jon Miller, director of the Decision Theater at ASU, and Sean Dudley, assistant vice president and chief research information officer at ASU, will develop a geospatial analysis platform to be used for predictive modeling and decision support.

“I’m really excited about working with this diverse interdisciplinary team as we will get to address this important problem from multiple angles simultaneously,” Wagner said. “In particular, I can’t wait to apply DNA enrichment techniques to Valley fever. We’ve had great success with this approach with other pathogens, and I think it could be a real game changer for Valley fever research.”

Barker agreed.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring many skills to the table to tackle this fungus,” she said. “The organism grows in desert soil, and disease/infection is acquired from the environment, but we understand so little about the ecology of the organism.”

“Our goal is to address the problem of Valley fever at its source, in the soil and air we breathe,” said Neal Woodbury, vice president for research and chief science and technology officer for ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise. “By understanding where the fungal pathogen grows and how it enters the air, we can pinpoint approaches to avoid human exposure to begin with.”

NAU Communications