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NC State Researchers Develop More Accurate Test For Cat Scratch Fever

Cat scratch fever

Researchers at NC State have developed a test they say is the most effective way yet of diagnosing Cat Scratch Fever. WFAE's Marshall Terry spoke to one of the researchers. Cat Scratch Fever is best known as a 1970s rock anthem by Ted Nugent. But the disease does really exist. "It is an infection associated with a bacteria called Bartonella henselae," says Ed Breitschwerdt, a professor of veterinary medicine at N.C. State. "Fever, big lymph nodes, and a history of Cat Scratch are the typical disease manifestations that a physician would consider in making that diagnosis." Breitschwerdt and a team of researchers have developed a test they say is the most effective way yet of diagnosing the disease. Breitschwerdt says before a cat can give you Cat Scratch though the cat itself has to get the bacteria that causes the fever. That happens when insects carrying the bacteria, like fleas, bite the cat. "That cycle of fleas biting cats that are infected and then transmitting the infection either by a flea bite or by the cat grooming itself and getting flea feces on the nails or in the saliva and that ultimately begin transmitted to a human is the cycle that occurs," Breitschwerdt says. Here's how Cat Scratch Fever is diagnosed right now: Researchers have to examine a person's blood for Bartonella, the bacteria that cuases the disease. The problem is that is doesn't take very much Bartonella to be present to cause Cat Scratch, so it can be difficult to find. Researchers use a method called PCR to make the search easier. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction "It is a way of taking a single copy of DNA of this bacteria Bartonella in a patient's sample and amplifying it to tens of thousands of copies so that you can then detect the bacteria," Breitschwerdt says. Here's how the diagnostic test Breitschwerdt and other researchers are working on is different: it brings the insects that transmit Bartonella into the testing. "We asked the question: if we used an insect cell culture bio-chemical composition and put a patient's sample - be it a cat, dog, horse, or human - into that medium, could we get these bacteria to grow up to a level that that diagnostic lab could then detect?" Breitschwerdt says. "The answer was yes." Think of it this way if you're still confused. The Bartonella is, in Breitschwerdt's words, "happier" in insect cells than in the cells of mammals - meaning its easier for the bacteria to exist in those cells and therefore easier to detect when a human blood sample is mixed in. The C.D.C says about 22,000 humans are diagnosed with Cat Scratch Fever every year in the U.S. Breitschwerdt says it rarely ever gets bad enough to be fatal though. Given the subject, we couldn't resist reaching out to Ted Nuget to ask him about his song. We couldn't get him on the phone because he's currently on tour. But he did answer a few questions we sent to his office in Michigan. Nuge says the song is "about the illness, cat scratch fever, and other such maladies in a parallel universe." We'll leave you to ponder that one.