SDSU virologist searches for cause of fatal illness

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – A San Diego State University virologist is searching for genetic sequences in a hunt for a fatal illness that is increasingly striking youth in remote areas of Central Africa.

The scientist, John Mokili, collected numerous genetic samples during a visit last year to areas in Africa impacted by nodding syndrome, in which children slip into epileptic seizures for several minutes but have no memory of what just took place. Next, they nod their heads — repeatedly and almost unconsciously — sometimes for 10 to 15 minutes.

The episodes occur several times per day, and sufferers stop growing and developing. The children eventually die from the disease itself or when the seizures result in an accident.

“What causes nodding syndrome is not really known,” said Mokili, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “When it doesn’t have a cause, it’s easy to believe the child has been affected by witchcraft.”

Mokili joined an international coalition of clinicians, epidemiologists and entomologists in three remote Congolese villages — Dingila, Liguga and Titule.

“In Dingila, every third house we visited had nodding syndrome,” Mokili said. “In some places, they were saying it made malaria seem like nothing.”

The research team collected genetic samples from about 140 children, half with nodding syndrome and half without. They also collected more than 700 samples of black flies, which might be spreading the disease.

The scientists said the flies swarm in thick clouds around the region’s rivers, and the villagers bathe in those waters. Mokili thinks it’s possible the flies carry a heretofore unknown virus that’s responsible for nodding syndrome.

Back on campus at the SDSU Viromics Information Institute, Mokili and SDSU computer science professor Rob Edwards are analyzing the genomic data the team collected, looking for sequences of DNA and RNA only present in the samples from people with nodding syndrome.

If they can identify such sequences, they might be looking at the genetic structure of the virus behind nodding syndrome.

“If we know the cause of the disease, it will lead to new research,” Mokili said.

“If we discover the virus causing nodding syndrome, we can start thinking about vaccine development,” Mokili said. “That’s the best way of preventing children from acquiring this disease in the first place. But the bottleneck right now is knowing the cause.”

Mokili and Edwards are using the same computational technique that last year helped them discover a virus that lurks in the intestines of at least half the world’s population. The virus might play a role in obesity, diabetes and various gut-related diseases, according to SDSU.

Categories: KUSI