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Marshfield - Marshfield Clinic scientists have launched a new study aimed at determining which genetic factors increase people’s susceptibility to blastomycosis, a deadly fungal infection found throughout central and northern Wisconsin.

The first phase will include recruitment of up to 350 study participants. Anyone previously diagnosed with blastomycosis, or blasto, is encouraged to participate in the study, which could give doctors insight into a mysterious disease that has impacted Wisconsinites for generations.

“We’re in the heart of blasto country; one significant frustration is we don’t know a lot about the disease,” said Dr. Holly Frost, study co-investigator and pediatrician at Marshfield Clinic Minocqua Center. “If we can find genetic variations that indicate which people respond severely to this disease, it could speed up diagnoses and allow doctors to treat it earlier.”

A concern with blasto is the spectrum of severity among patients of all ages and overall health. For instance, the lung infection may spread quickly in a healthy child, resulting in death. Meanwhile, a 70-year-old adult with a compromised immune system may recover quickly.

That’s why it’s so important researchers unearth any genetic clues that could put doctors closer to understanding blastomycosis, said Jennifer Meece, Ph.D., a Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation (MCRF) scientist and national blasto expert who has studied the disease for more than 10 years.  

Scientists know breathing in a naturally occurring fungus often found in moist soil containing rotting plants and wood causes blasto – and most infections occur in spring and fall. However, symptoms are similar to other respiratory illnesses, making it difficult to identify early. Also, symptoms don’t develop until 3-15 weeks after infection. And while it’s classified as a rare disease nationally, cases in Wisconsin far exceed the national average.

“So much about blastomycosis remains unknown and seemingly random – from who is susceptible to what exactly spurs an outbreak – but we know the answers are on the horizon,” said Meece, co-investigator and director of MCRF’s Integrated Research and Development Laboratory. “It’s enthralling to launch such a study that could impact so many people’s lives.”

The study is open to children and adults in Wisconsin, regardless of where they were diagnosed. Study participants do not need to be Marshfield Clinic patients. Due to budget constraints, this first study requires all participants speak English, given no resources for translation.

Participation requires about one hour of clinic time for researchers to gather a sample, explain the study and answer questions. Each participant will receive $25. For more information call 715-221-6445 or email Blastomycosis.study@mcrf.mfldclin.edu.

This study is funded by $150,000 from the Marshfield Clinic Development’s Clinician Scientist Research Award.

Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation (MCRF), a division of Marshfield Clinic, was founded in 1959. It’s the largest private medical research institute in Wisconsin. MCRF consists of research centers in clinical research, agricultural health and safety, epidemiology, human genetics, and biomedical informatics. Marshfield Clinic investigators publish extensively in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals addressing a wide range of diseases and other health issues, including cancer, infectious diseases, heart disease, diabetes, eye disease, neurological disease, pediatrics, radiology, women's health, agricultural safety and genetics.

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