Fred Mogul, Reporter, WNYC News
Fred Mogul has been covering healthcare and medicine for WNYC since 2002.
A new test developed by local scientists could help doctors rapidly pinpoint the mold in tainted steroids that killed 34 people and sickened more than 600. Thousands more received the injections, without becoming sick — but the illness can take months to develop.
Microbiologists at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, in Newark, and Weill Cornell Medical Center, in Manhattan, have isolated the mold's DNA and the series of chemicals which mainstream medical labs can use to quickly identify whether people actually have the mold in their spinal fluid.
"Almost any competent microbiology program, any major hospital, can do this," said Dr. David Perlin, from UMDNJ, who led the research team. "We're giving them the specific recipe. They already have the equipment and the expertise."
Perlin's findings were published Wednesday in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology.
The test involves a spinal tap, which is a delicate and complicated procedure, so few of the estimated 13,534 people who received the injections, will immediately be candidates for the test — unless they have symptoms of the fungal meningitis that it can cause.
Health officials notified these people and instructed them and their physicians to keep an eye out for symptoms.
"These infections are unpredictable, and while we saw this cluster, and we're hoping now we're at the tail end of it, and we're not going to see any more, we don't really know," Perlin said. "Are there persisters in whom we'll eventually still see an infection? Are you out of the woods after four weeks or 30 days, or are we looking at a 6-month or a 12-month window to be sure? We just don't know."
Until now, the main test for the mold has been to slowly grow a culture, which can take several days. The UMDNJ-Cornell test can be done within hours.
Dr. Ian Lipkin, Director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said developing a test that identifies the mold DNA is an important advance. Lipkin was not involved with the research.
"Many fungi grow slowly if at all; thus, early definitve treatment can be delayed," Lipkin said, via email. "This new test offers the hope of both rapid and inexpensive diagnosis of infection and reassurance of those who think they are infected but aren't."