Microbiology Case Study: A 50 Year Old Male with High Fevers and Chronic Cough

Case History

A 50 year old male of Indian descent presents to the pulmonary clinic with complaints of high fevers and chronic cough. The cough has persisted for the past month and recently became productive with green sputum.  His fevers are cyclic in nature and reach 104°F.  He denies hemoptysis, unintentional weight loss or chest pain.  He has tried over the counter decongestants and cough suppressants as well as a course of levofloxacin, with minimal improvement. His past medical history is significant for rheumatoid arthritis, which is currently treated with methotrexate and prednisone. He works as a long distance truck driver and is a non-smoker.  A recent chest x-ray demonstrated a left hilar opacity with a nodular appearance. A computed tomography scan of the chest shows focal consolidation of the left lower lobe along with mediastinal and hilar adenopathy. Also, there are innumerable non-calcified nodules seen throughout bilateral lung fields. A bronchoscopy with bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL), transbronchial biopsy, and fine needle aspiration (FNA) of the enlarged lymph nodes were performed. BAL fluid was transported to the microbiology lab for bacterial, fungal and mycobacterial cultures.

Laboratory Identification

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Figure 1. Histologic evaluation of the lung biopsy showed diffuse necrotizing granulomas which contained large yeast-like forms (red arrow) (H&E, 100x).

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Figure 2. The large yeast-like forms measured between 10-25 µm in size and demonstrated a thick walled capsule (Grocott’s methenamine silver (GMS), 600x).

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Figure 3. White mycelium with a downy texture and faint brown reverse grew on Mycosel agar after 28 days of incubation at 25°C.

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Figure 4. Numerous coarse, septate hyphae producing thick walled, “barrel shaped” arthroconidia (lactophenol cotton blue stain, 1000x oil immerson).

Histology of the lung biopsy specimen showed necrotizing granulomas with occasional large, yeast-like spherules which measured between 10-25 µm in diameter (Figures 1 & 2). The spherules had a thickened capsule and endospores were not visualized. The fungal BAL cultures grew a white mycelium with a downy texture and light brown reverse after incubation for 28 days at 25°C on Mycosel agar (Figure 3). Microscopic morphology of a lactophenol cotton blue prep illustrated alternating thick walled arthroconidia suggestive of Coccidioides immitis/posadasii (Figure 4). The dimorphic mold was confirmed by DNA probe testing. Due to the findings on histology and the unusually slow growth of this particular isolate, Coccidioides IgM and IgG antibodies were performed by ELISA in the interim. They were found to be 5.4 and 4.4, respectively, suggestive of a current or recent infection. Laboratory studies for Aspergillus galactomannan, Fungitell, Cryptococcus antigen, and Histoplasma & Blastomyces urinary antigens were all negative. A Quantiferon Gold for Mycobacterium tuberculosis and all other cultures were also negative.

Discussion

Coccidioides immitis is often considered a thermally dimorphic mold geographically distributed to the arid climate of the southwestern United States and Mexico. It is morphologically identical to the C. posadasii, a species which is more widespread and endemic in South America. The two species can only be differentiated by molecular methods, although it is not routinely necessary as there is no difference in symptoms and treatment between the two.

Inhalation of infectious arthroconidia occurs as a result of environmental exposure to dust, sand and soil that has been disturbed. While many immunocompetent individuals who are exposed to C. immitis will show mild flu-like symptoms which resolve with no treatment, a portion of patients will go on to have pulmonary disease. A severe disseminated infection can occur in individuals with underlying immune system disorders, including rheumatologic diseases, HIV and transplant recipients on immunosuppression. C. immitis can have direct invasion of adjacent structures and can cause eruptive chronic granulomatous cutaneous disease. Women who are diagnosed with Coccidiomycosis during pregnancy are also at high risk for disseminated disease due to the presence of estrogen-like receptors in the fungus.

In the environment and when cultured in the laboratory at 25°C, C. immitis grows as a hyphal mold with alternating barrel-shaped arthroconidia (3-6 µm) separated by disjunctor cells. The arthroconidia are highly infectious and cultures in the laboratory must be worked up in a biological safety cabinet to minimize the risk of accidental exposure. The yeast-like phase occurs in tissue at temperatures above 35°C and is characterized as the transformation of arthroconidia in to large spherules (10-80 µm) which become filled with endospores. The cell wall of the spherule ruptures and the endospores are released into the tissue to become additional spherules.

Most patients with primary Coccidiomycosis do not require specific therapy as the disease will resolve on its own. For those patients who are immunocompromised, or whom exhibit severe disease, treatment is amphotericin B followed by fluconazole or itraconazole as maintenance therapy. In the case of our patient, he was placed on oral fluconazole twice daily for at least 3 months.

 

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-Kristen Adams, MD, is a fourth year Anatomic and Clinical Pathology resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. 

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-Lisa Stempak, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, MS. She is certified by the American Board of Pathology in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology as well as Medical Microbiology. She is the director of the Microbiology and Serology Laboratories.  Her interests include infectious disease histology, process and quality improvement and resident education.  

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