Genetic mutation in some Southeast Asians may hold key to preventing damage from infection — UW Medicine looking for participants for medical study on inflammation

A genetic mutation that prevents inflammation present in some Southeast Asians may hold the key to treating a deadly disease, but more research is needed according to researchers at the University of Washington.

Melioidosis, also known as Whitmore’s disease, is caused by the bacterium burkholderia pseudomallei and is most prevalent in tropical climates. The disease is most active in vast areas of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as parts of northern Australia and is most commonly found in contaminated wet soils or waters. After infection, the disease can kill in under 48 hours, with many patients dying before a diagnosis can be made. However, the bacteria can also lie dorment for several years. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it is the third leading cause of death of infectious diseases in Thailand after HIV and tuberculosis, with an average mortality rate of 42.6 percent.

Contracted through inhalation, inoculation through the skin, or by ingestion, symptoms may include high fevers, accelerated heart rates, abscesses, and pneumonia.

But in the early 2000s, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington Dr. Thomas Hawn discovered a genetic mutation that actually decreased the chances of death from melioidosis fourfold.

Now, the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Washington is conducting a study on the relationship between blood and lung responses in people of mainland Southeast Asian descent.

Hawn found that the mutation caused the body not to trigger an inflammatory response to the diseases, reducing the risk of death.

According to Dr. T. Eoin West, the director of the International Respiratory and Severe Illness Center at the University of Washington, the inflammatory response to this particular bacterium may be an overcompensating reaction for the body. So those with the mutation may be less likely to incur greater bodily damage.

“It’s a pretty delicate balance,” said Dr. West.

West is currently conducting a study, testing the DNA of people with Southeast Asian ancestry to see if this distinct genetic factor makes them more or less susceptible to melioidosis and how to create more preventative measures to avoid infection by those exposed to the bacteria. He spends much of his time working on melioidosis in Thailand, with a team at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit.

According to West, the handful of cases in the United States is due to travelers who have been in infected areas. Though the bacteria are very resistant to many antibiotics and a vaccine has yet to be developed, it is still curable, especially when paired with supportive care.

To reduce the risk of infection, he advises to wear protective clothing in infected areas to lessen contact with bare skin. Those with diabetes, kidney diseases, or increased alcohol intake are at a higher risk of infection.

Through studies like his and extended research, Dr. West hopes to spread awareness to the Southeast Asian community, as well as educate those in the infected areas to prevent exposure.

“Because many of Southeast Asia is under-resourced, some of these studies have not really involved people from those areas. There is a relative hole in our knowledge about Southeast Asians and their response to infection,” Dr. West said.

“[We want to] try to fill that hole a little bit.”

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