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Hunterdon Medical Center doc discovers new pathogen

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A depressed immune system is usually not a good thing, but for one Hunterdon County resident, it led to the discovery of a tick-born disease previously unidentified as a pathogen – and an academic journal publication for a community hospital physician.

Dr. Joseph Gugliotta, Hunterdon Medical Center infectious disease specialist, worked with Imungen Inc. in Norwood, Mass., to identify why Anna Felix had lost weight, and became increasingly confused and withdrawn. Felix, a non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor, was exhibiting some symptoms of Lyme disease, but was testing negative for the common infection.

Gugliotta said when he first met Felix, he was suspicious that she had something yet to be identified. He took a large-volume spinal tap, and when the results returned from the lab, it was discovered that Felix had Borrelia miyamotoi, a bacteria, in her spinal fluid.

Borrelia miyamotoi had never been proven to cause sickness in humans before, but because of Felix’s suppressed immune system, the bacteria was able to be identified before a round of penicillin wiped it out. Felix returned to health, with the only remaining effect of the infection being some hearing loss.

Now, Gugliotta and staff from Imungen have published their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine. Gugliotta said other academics have picked up on his research, and are applying it to their work on the bacteria. As a community hospital physician who trained at academic centers, he said “in my mind, I never left those places.”

“I’m still mentally academically-oriented, and I kept talking about that and this is what we do,” Gugliotta said.

“For me and the staff, there is a second phase to this,” Gugliotta said, adding that Imungen is creating markers for a rapid test for B. miyamotoi. “Getting a marker for this is important, because you can niche the diagnosis very rapidly.”

Gugliotta hopes the discovery of the bacteria and the way the body reacts to infection will help local residents with tick bites recognize the signs for the need for treatment, especially in the elderly population, where disorientation from the infection can be confused with dementia.


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