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Flagstaff Geneticists Track Deadly Infection To Tainted Cancer Medication

Genetic sequencing equipment
(Photo by Melissa Sevigny - KNAU)
Genetic sequencing equipment at TGen.

A research institute in Flagstaff traced a deadly infection in South America to tainted cancer medication. Scientists made the connection because now they can map an organism’s complete DNA.

Genomics experts in Flagstaff were contacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after hospital workers in Chile and Columbia noticed an unusual fungal infection in dozens of cancer patients.

Scientists at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) mapped the entire genome of the fungus. They found an exact match in samples of anti-nausea medication, which had been given to all of the patients, most of them children.  

“Really it hasn’t been until we had this ability to look at the entirety of the genomes and compare those genomes to each other that we could be absolutely certain whether or not two strains of a particular organism are related to each other, and therefore are part of the same outbreak," said David Engelthaler, an associate professor at TGen.

Engelthaler said the technology to track outbreaks this way has improved in speed and cost. Before, scientists used “fingerprints” or markers in DNA to compare strains, but now, they can look at complete genomes.

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Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University.