Tick Identification: Why Do We Do It and What Does It Tell Us?

During the warmer months here in the Midwest, ticks are abundant and our microbiology lab receives several tick submissions per day for identification. When possible, we provide species level identification as well as sex for any tick submitted. While this is common practice in most microbiology laboratories, our molecular laboratory accidently received a tick specimen and, in the process of routing it to the microbiology lab, was curious as to why the tick identification matters—what does that tell us clinically? This led to an impromptu plate rounds with both labs and prompted me to write this post.


How do we determine tick identity?

A tick is submitted in a cup and sent to the laboratory. Ideally the tick would be submitted whole without missing appendages or damaged in any way. The tick is placed in ethanol to kill the organism and to allow for examination under a microscope. The mouth parts, scutum, and festoons are examined for defining features. Thorough examination is challenging when the tick arrives damaged or only partially intact.

Why do we provide tick identification?

Certain ticks carry specific pathogens. For instance, Amblyomma americanum (lone star tick) can transmit ehrlichiosis, Francisella tularensis, Heartland virus, Bourbon virus, and Southern tick-associated rash illness, while Ixodes scapularis can transmit Borrelia burgdorferi & Borrelia mayonii (both are causative agents of Lyme disease), Anaplasma phagocytophilum, and Erhlicia muris as well as Powassan virus. Knowing which tick that the patient was bitten by can allow providers to understand what potential pathogens they may or may not have been exposed to. If Amblyomma americanum is submitted, for example, that tick does not carry Borrelia burgdorferi. However, it is important to note that the majority of patients who develop tick-borne illness have no recollection of a tick bite! So while one tick may be discovered and sent to the lab, the patient could still have been unknowingly bitten by a different tick, which could carry other pathogens. When a patient exhibits clinical symptoms that are consistent with a tick-borne disease, such as Lyme Disease, the patient should be tested for that disease regardless of their tick history.

The patient has an Ixodes tick! They are worried about Lyme Disease. Should we send the tick out for molecular testing?

We discourage the use of molecular testing on the ticks themselves because ticks carry a variety of pathogens and there is a high likelihood of carrying a particular pathogen in a high prevalence area. For Ixodes ticks in Lyme Disease endemic areas, 15-70% of ticks may carry the causative agent, Borrelia burgdorferi. However, just because a tick carries a particular pathogen, it does not mean that the patient is now infected. This can lead to unnecessary treatment and misdiagnosis. Moreover, ticks must feed for a certain amount of time before pathogens can be transmitted. For example, Ixodes ticks must typically feed for more than 24 hours before it can transmit Lyme Disease or other pathogens.

Image 1. A male Dermacentor variabilis (also known as the American dog tick) submitted by one of our patients.

In summary, tick identification can provide a glimpse into what the patient was potentially exposed to and if symptoms do arise days to weeks later, the tick identification may offer additional clues. However, just because a person was bitten by a tick does not mean that they are infected. Identification is just a piece of the puzzle!

References

-Paige M.K. Larkin, PhD, D(ABMM), M(ASCP)CM is the Director of Molecular Microbiology and Associate Director of Clinical Microbiology at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, IL. Her interests include mycology, mycobacteriology, point-of-care testing, and molecular diagnostics, especially next generation sequencing.

Microbiology Case Study: A 47 Year Old with Eye Pain and Redness

Case history

A 47 year old male with an extensive ocular history including laser assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK), multiple ocular traumas with repair, and myopic degeneration with neovascularization for which he was prescribed hard and soft contact lenses presented for bilateral eye redness, watering, and stinging pain. Recently, he had forgotten his soft contacts and wore his hard lenses to his job in construction which he reported doing once every 1-2 months. Ocular exam revealed only his usual chronic changes. His symptoms improved with moxifloxacin eyedrops, but never fully resolved. A month later he returned with what was initially assessed as diffuse corneal edema and conjunctival injection in his left eye, but no ring infiltrate or epithelial defect. Two days later, a large epithelial defect with surrounding ring infiltrate and hypopyon (settling of white blood cells at the base of the anterior chamber) developed in his left eye. Confocal microscopy showed findings concerning for Acanthamoeba infection and the contact lenses and case were sent for culture. Environmental organisms including Klebsiella varicola, Chryseobacterium gleum, and Pseudomonas fluorescens were recovered. In addition, cultures for Acanthamoeba sp., where sample is overlaid on a lawn of E. coli grown on a non-nutrient agar plate, were sent to a reference laboratory.

The patient was treated with Brolene, polyhexamide biguanide (PHMB), and chlorhexidine for Acanthamoeba as well as with antibacterial agents. Three months later his LASIK flap failed and was removed and sent for cultures and pathology which both grew Acanthamoeba sp.(Image 1). He continued treatment for another two months, but the corneal defect expanded. He underwent a therapeutic penetrating keratoplasty, and the explant cornea was sent for pathology. Sections showed acute and chronic inflammation of the corneal epithelium and stroma with rare cysts of Acanthamoeba with atypical morphology possibly representing treatment effect or nonviable organisms (Image 2). The patient continued treatment for another month afterward with resolution of symptoms.

Image 1. Representative photomicrographs of cornea with multiple Acanthamoeba cyst forms at differing stages of development (H&E, 400x magnification) and trophozoite with associated acute inflammation (inset, 500x magnification, oil immersion).
Image 2. Photomicrograph of this patient’s explanted LASIK flap. A) Low power magnification demonstrating acute and chronic inflammation in a background of degrading corneal tissue. An empty cyst is highlighted by the arrowhead (H&E, 100x magnification). B and C) High power magnification of likely nonviable cysts indicated by the arrowheads (H&E, 400x magnification).

Discussion

Acanthamoeba sp. are free-living amoebae found ubiquitously in the environment including in water, soil, dust, and air conditioning ducts.1 Over 20 species of Acanthamoeba have been identified, with eight known to cause human disease. A. castellani and A. polyphaga are the most common species identified from clinical infections.2 Acanthamoeba sp. are a primary reservoir of Legionella pneumophilia and can serve as vectors for other bacterial infections.3 These organisms may colonize the nasal passages of normal hosts.4 Acanthamoebal infections have varied clinical presentations depending on the route of transmission, organ(s) infected, and immune status of the host. These include amebic keratitis, granulomatous amebic encephalitis, and disseminated disease.3 Of these, Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK) is the most frequently encountered clinically.

AK can occur when the organisms are inoculated into corneal micro-abrasions, most often from contaminated hard contact lenses rinsed with tap water. AK represents 5% of all cases of contact-lens-associated keratitis, and 70-85% of AK cases are associated with contact lens use.1 Diagnosis of AK is heavily dependent on a high index of suspicion as AK presents with nonspecific ocular symptomology including blurred vision, photophobia, inflammation, and eye pain. A corneal ring infiltrate is characteristic, but only present in 50% of cases.1 Although historically culture is the gold standard for diagnosis, advanced technologies like confocal microscopy and PCR have greatly improved sensitivity and time to diagnosis.5 Cultures are usually grown on agar plates coated with gram negative bacilli such as E. coli.2 If Acanthamoeba are present, trails of bacterial clearing can usually be seen within days but may take up to several weeks.2 They have dormant cyst and active trophozoite forms. Microscopically they appear as round heterogeneous bodies with a distinct nucleus and surrounded by ruffled membrane and are 15-35 μm in length.3 PCR, given its analytical sensitivity, specificity and turn around time, is the more common method of diagnosis of AK and has replaced many instances of culture today.

AK has a poor prognosis and is potentially sight threatening. Factors contributing to disease severity include delayed diagnosis, pathogenic factors, and lack of effective medical management.1 Nearly 40% of patients fail initial therapy.1 Factors that contribute to Acanthamoeba pathogenicity include production of enzymes including elastases and proteases, adhesion molecules, and physiologic tolerance to different temperatures, osmolarities, and pH.6 The cyst stage confers resilience to many therapies which is compounded by poor tissue penetration of the antimicrobial agents often used in therapy.6 Repeated exposure to therapeutic antimicrobials can also lead to the development of resistance.6 In our patient’s case, treatment was successful following the LASIK flap removal, facilitating increased drug penetration and supported by pathologic findings of treatment effect in the explanted cornea.

References

  1. Somani SN, Ronquillo Y, Moshirfar M. Acanthamoeba Keratitis. 2021 Aug 11. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–. PMID: 31751053.
  2. Maycock NJ, Jayaswal R. Update on Acanthamoeba Keratitis: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Outcomes. Cornea. 2016 May;35(5):713-20. doi: 10.1097/ICO.0000000000000804. PMID: 26989955.
  3. Marciano-Cabral F, Cabral G. Acanthamoeba sp. as agents of disease in humans. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2003 Apr;16(2):273-307. doi: 10.1128/CMR.16.2.273-307.2003. PMID: 12692099; PMCID: PMC153146.
  4. Clarke B, Sinha A, Parmar DN, Sykakis E. Advances in the diagnosis and treatment of Acanthamoeba keratitis. J Ophthalmol. 2012;2012:484892. doi: 10.1155/2012/484892. PMID: 23304449; PMCID: PMC3529450.
  5. Hoffman, J.J., Dart, J.K.G., De, S.K. et al. Comparison of culture, confocal microscopy and PCR in routine hospital use for microbial keratitis diagnosis. Eye (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41433-021-01812-7
  6. Lorenzo-Morales J, Khan NA, Walochnik J. An update on Acanthamoeba keratitis: diagnosis, pathogenesis and treatment. Parasite. 2015;22:10. doi: 10.1051/parasite/2015010. PMID: 25687209; PMCID: PMC4330640.

-Tim Kirtek is a fourth year AP/CP resident at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

-Dominick Cavuoti is a professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center who practices Medical Microbiology, Cytology and Infectious Disease Pathology.

-Andrew Clark, PhD, D(ABMM) is an Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in the Department of Pathology, and Associate Director of the Clements University Hospital microbiology laboratory. He completed a CPEP-accredited postdoctoral fellowship in Medical and Public Health Microbiology at National Institutes of Health, and is interested in antimicrobial susceptibility and anaerobe pathophysiology.

-Clare McCormick-Baw, MD, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Microbiology at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. She has a passion for teaching about laboratory medicine in general and the best uses of the microbiology lab in particular.

Microbiology Case Study: A 75 Year Old Found Unresponsive

A 75 year old female with a past medical history of coronary artery disease, hypertension, pre-diabetes mellitus, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, prior left lobe cavitary lesion of unknown etiology, and tobacco use presented to the ED after being found nonresponsive on the couch. Family reports the patient said she had emesis the night before and felt as if she had a “stomach bug”. MRI shows T2 hyperintensities in the right MCA distribution. CSF results as follows.

White Blood Cells300
Red Blood Cells12
Protein990
Glucose79
Cryptococcal antigenNegative
Fungal cultureNo fungi isolated
HSVNegative

Laboratory findings

CSF was sent to the microbiology lab for bacterial and fungal smears and cultures. No fungi were identified. Cryptococcal antigen was negative. HSV was also negative. CSF Gram stain shows gram positive bacilli. CSF culture showed a small, white, smooth, translucent appearance on sheep blood agar. In semi-solid agar after overnight incubation at room temperature, an umbrella shaped pattern of motility was seen. The organism was identified as Listeria monocytogenes by MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry.

Image 1. Listeria monocytogenes on sheep blood agar.
Image 2. Listeria monocytogenes showing “umbrella zone” pattern of motility on semi-solid agar.

Discussion

Listeria spp. is a genus of gram positive, aerobic, facultative intracellular, catalase positive bacteria. Listeria monocytogenes is a common colonizer in the environment (animals, soil, vegetable matter) and occasionally colonizes the human gastrointestinal tract. Listeria prefers colder environments and can be found as a food contaminant, most notably in milk, raw vegetables, cheese, and meats. In addition, colonized mothers can pass Listeria monocytogenes to the fetus.1

Listeria monocytogenes has 3 notable virulence factors:2

  1. Listeriololysin O: a hemolytic toxin that allows for survival within phagocytes
  2. Act A: induces actin polymerization that facilitate cell-to-cell spread
  3. Siderophores: organisms capable of scavenging iron from human transferrin to enhance cell growth

Neonates, immunocompromised individuals, and the elderly are more likely to acquire infection. Infection can present as bacteremia and CNS infections including meningitis, encephalitis, brain abscesses, and spinal cord infections. Listeria monocytogenes is the 3rd most common cause of meningitis behind Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria Meningitidis. In neonates, an in-utero infection can cause granulomatous infantisepticum leading to systemic infection and stillbirth.3 Listeria monocytogenes can also present as gastroenteritis.

References

  1. Allerberger F. Listeria: growth, phenotypic differentiation and molecular microbiology. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol. 2003;35(3):183-189. doi:10.1016/S0928-8244(02)00447-9
  2. Bailey & Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology – Elsevier eBook on VitalSource, 14th Edition – 9780323433792. https://evolve.elsevier.com/cs/product/9780323433792?role=student
  3. Engelen-Lee JY, Koopmans MM, Brouwer MC, Aronica E, van de Beek D. Histopathology of Listeria Meningitis. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology. 2018;77(10):950-957. doi:10.1093/jnen/nly077

-Nicholas Taylor, DO is a 1st year anatomic and clinical pathology resident at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

-Christi Wojewoda, MD, is the Director of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an Associate Professor at the University of Vermont.

Microbiology Case: A 35 Year Old Male with Left Leg Cellulitis

Clinical History

A 35 year old male with chronic bilateral lower extremity lymphedema due to obesity presented with a one-week history of subjective fevers and malaise with associated left lower extremity pain, swelling and erythema. The left leg was markedly edematous with erythema present above the knee down. The leg was tender to palpation, and multiple ruptured bullae and areas of severe desquamation with excessive serous drainage were observed. Importantly, no areas of purulence were noted (Image 2). A clinical diagnosis of severe non-purulent cellulitis was made, and the patient was admitted for parenteral antibiotic therapy of vancomycin and piperacillin-tazobactam. Necrotizing fasciitis was ruled out based on imaging, and significant clinical improvement was seen after 5 days of intravenous antibiotics. The patient was transitioned to oral therapy with amoxicillin-clavulanic acid and doxycycline for a total of 14 days of antibiotics.

Laboratory Workup

During the admission, urinalysis revealed turbid urine with elevated protein (30 mg/dL), and 2+ blood with 5 RBC/HPF on microscopic examination. Given the presence of protein with microscopic hematuria, causes of glomerulonephritis were investigated. Workup revealed a markedly elevated anti-streptolysin O (ASO) titer of 5310 (0-330) and a total complement (CH50) level of 14, which was low given his age. Urine sediment examination revealed red blood cell casts (Image 3). These clinical and laboratory findings were consistent with post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis (PSGN) due to Streptococcus pyogenes skin and soft tissue infection.

 
Image 1. Colony appearance and biochemical testing of S. pyogenes. A) Typical gram positive cocci in chains characteristic of streptococci. B) Growth on Sheep’s Blood Agar of small, translucent colonies with a wide zone of beta-hemolysis indicative of S. pyogenes. C) Catalase-negative S. pyogenes (left) compared to catalase-positive S. aureus (right). D) PYR-positive S. pyogenes (left) compared to PYR-negative S. aureus (right).
Image 2. Left lower extremity at presentation.
Image 3: Red blood cell cast seen in urine sediment.

Discussion

Streptococcus pyogenes are gram positive bacteria that appear in pairs and/or chains by microscopy (Image 1A). In culture, these organisms produce relatively small colonies which elaborate a large zone of beta hemolysis on blood agar plates; colonies are translucent with smooth edges (Image 1B). The beta-hemolytic activity of S. pyogenes is due to the activity of two hemolysins: Streptolysin-S (oxygen-stabile) and Streptolysin-O (oxygen-labile). S. pyogenes is the primary organism which expresses the Lancefield Group A carbohydrate antigen. Less frequently encountered strains of S. anginosus and S. dysgalactiae subsp. equisimilis may also express this antigen, so biochemical identification of S. pyogenes may be helpful for a definitive diagnosis. MALDI-TOF MS may also fail to discriminate between S. pyogenes and closely related β-hemolytic streptococci (including S. dysgalactiae and S. canis), necessitating adjunctive biochemical testing. Like other streptococci, S. pyogenes is catalase negative (Image 1C). Unlike other beta-hemolytic streptococci, S. pyogenes expresses pyrrolidonyl arylamidase (PYR) making this test a rapid and useful adjunctive diagnostic tool (Figure 1D). Bacitracin susceptibility was used historically but has been largely replaced by PYR testing due to concerns over specificity and prolonged turnaround time.

Globally, S. pyogenes is responsible for a large percentage of infection-related morbidity and mortality. The organism colonizes the skin and the nasopharynx of humans, but most colonized individuals do not develop active disease. Colonization however can lead to infection or dissemination to susceptible individuals. S. pyogenes infections exhibit a diverse range of clinical manifestations which can include pharyngitis, impetigo, erysipelas, cellulitis, necrotizing fasciitis, pyomyositis, streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, and bacteremia. S. pyogenes remains susceptible to penicillin, making β-lactams first-line drugs of choice for management. Conversely, rising levels of macrolide, lincomycin, tetracycline, and fluoroquinolone resistance has been observed. Susceptibility testing may be warranted if these agents are to be used, most often in the cases of severe penicillin allergy.

S. pyogenes infection can be complicated by multiple post-infectious immune-mediated sequelae including PSGN and rheumatic fever. Post-Streptococcus glomerulonephritis (PSGN) has a global incidence of > 470,000 individuals per year and occurs due to the deposition of immune complexes in the glomeruli resulting from previous S. pyogenes pharyngitis or soft tissue infection (as seen in this case). Typical clinical presentation of PSGN includes hematuria, proteinuria, edema, hypertension, elevated serum creatinine levels, hypocomplementemia, and general malaise. The elevated ASO titer (5310) was diagnostic of an S. pyogenes acute infection as the cause of this patient’s cellulitis. The development of proteinuria and hematuria following infection further supports a clinical diagnosis of PSGN. Treatment of PSGN is largely supportive with the focus on management of the underlying infection. Most individuals with kidney failure from PSGN recover to baseline renal function; however, there may be a link between PSGN and the later development of chronic kidney disease/end-stage renal disease.

References

  1. De la Maza LM, Pezzlo MT, Bittencourt CE, Peterson EM. 2020. Color Atlas of Medical Bacteriology, 3rd edition. ASM Press. Pg. 11-23
  2. Madaio MP, Harrington JT. 2001. The diagnosis of glomerular diseases: acute glomerulonephritis and the nephrotic syndrome. Arch Intern Med. 161(1):Pg. 25-34. doi: 10.1001/archinte.161.1.25.
  3. Stevens DL, Bisno AL, Chambers HF, Dellinger EP, Goldstein EJC, Gorbach SL, Hirschmann JV, Kaplan SL, Montoya JG, Wade JC. 2014. Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Skin and Soft Tissue Infections: 2014 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Clin Infect Dis. 59(2): Pg. e10-e52, https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciu296.
  4. Walker MJ, Barnett TC, McArthur JD, Cole JN, Gillen CM, Henningham A, Sriprakash KS, Sanderson-Smith ML, Nizet V. 2014. Disease manifestations and pathogenic mechanisms of Group A Streptococcus. Clin Microbiol Rev. (2): Pg. 264-301. doi: 10.1128/CMR.00101-13.
  5. Wong CH, Khin LW, Heng KS, Tan KC, Low CO. 2014. The LRINEC (Laboratory Risk Indicator for Necrotizing Fasciitis) score: a tool for distinguishing necrotizing fasciitis from other soft tissue infections. Crit Care Med. 32(7): Pg. 1535-41. doi: 10.1097/01.ccm.0000129486.35458.7d.

-John Markantonis, DO is the former Medical Microbiology fellow at UT Southwestern and has recently completed his clinical pathology residency. He is also interested in Transfusion Medicine and parasitic diseases.

-Andrew Clark, PhD, D(ABMM) is an Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in the Department of Pathology, and Associate Director of the Clements University Hospital microbiology laboratory. He completed a CPEP-accredited postdoctoral fellowship in Medical and Public Health Microbiology at National Institutes of Health, and is interested in antimicrobial susceptibility and anaerobe pathophysiology.

-Clare McCormick-Baw, MD, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Microbiology at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. She has a passion for teaching about laboratory medicine in general and the best uses of the microbiology lab in particular.

Microbiology Case Study: Genotypic-to-phenotypic Discordant Results

Case History

Scenario 1: A 51 year old male with a history of diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, gastric ulcer, chronic kidney disease and bilateral below knee amputation presented with epigastric pain, nausea, and vomiting. He was febrile and tachycardic. Computerized scan showed ascending/ transverse colitis and cholelithiasis. Blood cultures grew gram negative rods; the Biofire BCIDv2 panel reported Enterobacter cloacae with no genotypic, resistance markers detected. Phenotypic antimicrobial susceptibility testing (AST) from the Microscan Walkaway revealed resistance to ertapenem (>1mg/ml) but susceptibility to meropenem (£ 1mg/ml). Additionally, the isolate was resistant to 3rd-generation cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, and intermediate-resistant to tetracyclines. Identification was confirmed by the MALDI-TOF MS upon growth on agar plates. The isolate was subbed with a meropenem disk to select for carbapenem resistance for further confirmatory testing. A Cepheid Carba-R test was ran on a sweep of the isolate growing near the carbapenem disk, which resulted in no carbapenemases detected. Results from E-tests with meropenem and ertapenem were consistent with original phenotypic result. Here, we reported the discrepant phenotypic result and genotypic results as is.

Image 1. Phenotypic testing results (E-test) for meropenem (MP,left) and ertapenem (ETP, right) of Enterobacter cloacae isolate described in scenario 1. E-test results were consistent with original phenotypic results which also identified the isolate as meropenem susceptible and ertapenem resistant. (Photo credit: Gizachew Demessie, Lead Tech, George Washington Hospital.)

Scenario 2: An 80 year old female underwent a Whipple procedure for a pancreatic mass. A wound culture was submitted from the operating room which grew both Streptococcus anginosus and Enterobacter cloacae complex. Phenotypic AST for the E. cloacae revealed susceptibility to ertapenem (≤0.5 mg/ml) but resistance to meropenem (4 mg/ml). The isolate was pan-susceptible to other drug classes (aside from intrinsic resistance). Similar to Case 1 above, identification was confirmed by the MALDI-TOF MS and the isolate was subcultured with selective pressure. A Cepheid Carba-R test did not detect any carbapenemases. However, upon repeating a phenotypic test, both ertapenem and meropenem were susceptible. Our investigation here led to the avoidance of reporting an incorrect phenotypic AST result.

Discussion

Genotype-to-phenotype discrepancies may occur in antimicrobial susceptibility testing. For example, an antimicrobial resistance (AMR) gene may be detected in a phenotypically susceptible isolate or an AMR gene may not be detected in a phenotypically resistant isolate. Such discordant results should be investigated so appropriate antimicrobial therapy is used on these patients. This leads us to an important question “What can laboratories do to solve these discrepancies?”

The first step in detection of discrepancies requires educating and teaching the lab staff to be vigilant in looking for odd susceptibility patterns (from results within a drug class and also the overall AST profile). Next, check if there was pure isolation of the organism on the purity plate; if not, each individual isolate should be subbed, identified and re-tested on both genotypic and phenotypic platforms. Of note, subbing the bacteria under selective antibiotic pressure (e.g. growing the isolate on agar plate with an antibiotic disk) can increase the potential of detecting resistance. Alternative methods (e.g. CarbaNP, mCIM, etc) could be considered if one is looking into specific resistant mechanisms. Due diligence in checking for clerical, transcription errors and contamination on equipment, especially when there is a consistent pattern of detection for a specific molecular target, is highly recommended. As such, a lab should maintain constant communication with the test manufacturer in case there are issues with batches or lots of reagents.1,2

While these rapid, genotypic panels tend to include the more common AMR mechanisms, there are still other mechanisms of resistance not on the panels. For gram negatives, AMR mechanisms such as AmpC beta-lactamases, porin mutations, efflux pumps and rare carbapenemases such as GES, IMI, and SME types are typically not included.3 Additionally, although the gene blaCTX-M is used as a marker for Extended Spectrum Beta-Lactamases (ESBL), different variants of ESBLs confer different cephalosporin (e.g. 3rd and 4th generation) phenotypes.4 A heteroresistant subpopulation, decreased or lack of expression of an AMR gene may also be potential explanations.

If a discrepancy is not resolved, it is suggested to report the isolate as resistant. If both the discrepant genotypic and phenotypic results are reported, one should consider recommending an infectious diseases consult or to contact the antimicrobial stewardship team.1 Additional information and suggested laboratory workflow can be found in Appendix H of the M100 guidelines from the Clinical Laboratory and Standards Institute.2 While molecular AMR approaches have many advantages such as a shorter turnaround time, phenotypic susceptibility testing can still offer valuable clinical information.5

  1. CLSI. Performance Standards for Antimicrobial Susceptibility Test. CLSI supplement M100. Wayne, PA: Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute; 2022, Edition 32
  2. Yee R, Dien Bard J, Simner PJ. The Genotype-to-Phenotype Dilemma: How Should Laboratories Approach Discordant Susceptibility Results? J Clin Microbiol. 2021 May 19;59(6):e00138-20.
  3. Tamma PD, Sharara SL, Pana ZD, Amoah J, Fisher SL, Tekle T, Doi Y, Simner PJ. 2019. Molecular epidemiology of ceftriaxone non-susceptible Enterobacterales isolates in an academic medical center in the United States. Open Forum Infect Dis 6:ofz353.
  4. Paterson DL, Bonomo RA. 2005. Extended-spectrum beta-lactamases: a clinical update. Clin Microbiol Rev 18:657–686.
  5. Dien Bard J, Lee F. 2018. Why can’t we just use PCR? The role of genotypic versus phenotypic testing for antimicrobial resistance testing. Clin Microbiol Newsl 40:87–95. 10.1016/j.clinmicnews.2018.05.003. 

Rami Abdulbaki, MD is a Pathology Resident (PGY-3) at The George Washington University Hospital. His academic interest includes hematopathology and molecular pathology.

-Rebecca Yee, PhD, D(ABMM), M(ASCP)CM is the Chief of Microbiology, Director of Clinical Microbiology and Molecular Microbiology Laboratory at the George Washington University Hospital. Her interests include bacteriology, antimicrobial resistance, and development of infectious disease diagnostics.

Microbiology Case Study: How to “Pin” a Diagnosis

Case History

A 7 year old female presented to the emergency department with left sided abdominal pain and a temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Labs drawn showed mild leukocytosis with a CT scan suggestive of acute appendicitis. The patient underwent uncomplicated appendectomy with no complication. Gross examination of the appendix revealed an unremarkable, non-perforated serosa and a fecalith within the lumen. Representative tissue sections submitted for microscopic analysis per grossing policy. The findings below led to the submission of the entire appendix to be evaluated.

Figure 1. Low power image of an appendix demonstrating mild acute inflammation, lymphoid hyperplasia and congestion.

Figure 2. High power image, Cross-section of an adult female E. vermicularis from the same specimen shown in Figure 1. Adherent to the appendiceal surface. Note the presence of the alae (blue arrow), and the presence of almond shaped eggs (red arrow).

Discussion

The nematode Enterobius vermicularis, widely known as the human pinworm, is one of the most common parasitic worm infections today in the United States, infecting approximately 40 million people. The patient population is often children who are infected via fecal-oral transmission, with autoinfection being common. Humans are the only known host of this nematode. Once E. vermicularis embryonated oocytes are ingested, the larvae hatch and inhabit the gastrointestinal system. At night, the larvae migrate down to the anus, lay their eggs, and the cycle recurs.

The clinical presentation can be asymptomatic or can present with perianal pruritus at night, which can be explained via the life cycle of the parasite as stated above. The method of choice for diagnosing E. Vermicularis is microscopic examination of the eggs via cellulose tape slide test. A piece of scotch tape collects the eggs near the perianal area of the patient, which is then used for analysis and identification of the eggs. Microscopically, E. Vermicularis can be identified by the spines or ‘alas’ on the surface with oval shaped, thick capsuled oocytes within, seen in figure 2. To improve the sensitivity of the scotch tape test, it is best to do this test in the early morning, when there is an increased chance of sampling the eggs.

Rarely, is this worm associated with any severe symptoms but patients can present with abdominal pain, suggesting intestinal obstruction, extra intestinal manifestations like vulvovaginitis, or appendicitis. The relationship between E. Vermicularis and appendicitis is up for debate as to whether there is a causative relationship or if it is an incidental finding seen within appendicitis. Regardless of the relationship, once a diagnosis of Enterobius vermicularis is made, treatment with an anthelmintic needs to be given to the patient, such as Albendazole or Pyrantel Pamoate. In addition, treatment for everyone in the household needs to be considered in confirmed cases of infection.

Routine surgical specimens, such as appendices, can perhaps be overlooked once acute inflammation is noted. It is important to be able to identify organisms, such as pinworms, on such specimens to get the patient the appropriate treatment.

References

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/dpdx/enterobiasis/index.html.
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S204908012030412X
  3. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/enterobiasis-pinworm-and-trichuriasis-whipworm?search=enterobius%20vermicularis&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~32&usage_type=default&display_rank=1#H12

-Alexandra Medeiros, MD, is a first year anatomic and clinical pathology resident at Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. Her academic interests include Forensic pathology, and surgical pathology.

-Hasan Samra, MD, is the Director of Clinical Microbiology at Augusta University and an Assistant Professor at the Medical College of Georgia.

Microbiology Case Study: A 44 Year Old Male Finds a Tick on His Leg

Case History A 44 year old male pulled this (image 1) off of his leg after dragging brush out of a tree line in Vermont.

Image 1. Ixodes scapularis under a microscope. Characteristic features such as eight black legs, dorsal shield, and dark red color can be appreciated.

Ixodes scapularis

Ixodes scapularis, also known as the blacklegged tick or deer tick, is commonly found in the eastern and northern Midwest regions of the United States as well as southeastern Canada. This species of tick is approximately 3 mm in length. Morphologically, females have a black head and a dorsal shield with a dark red abdomen, while males are entirely black or dark brown. Both sexes have eight black legs and a characteristic anal opening, appearing within a horseshoe-shaped ridge on the ventral lower abdomen. Unlike other tick species, Ixodes scapularis does not have ridges on the edge of the lower abdomen. Ixodes scapularis can live up to 2 years in the wild and die after reproduction.1

Life Cycle, Transmission, and Infection

Ixodes scapularis is a three-host tick with a different host at each stage of development. Their life cycle lasts approximately 2 years, where they undergo 4 distinct developmental/life stages: egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph, and adult. After hatching from the egg, it should have a blood meal at every developmental stage to survive. Ixodes scapularis is known to parasitize and feed from mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and its best-known host is the white-tailed deer. This species is unable to fly or jump so it usually waits for a host while resting in the tips of grass or shrubs. Depending on the developmental stage, preparation for feeding can take between 10 minutes to 2 hours.2 Once the tick finds a feeding spot on the host, it grasps onto the skin and cuts into the surface inserting its feeding tube, which can have barbs and can secrete a cement-like surface for better attachment. Moreover, the tick can also secrete small amounts of saliva with anesthetic properties to remain undetected during the blood meal. If attached to a sheltered spot, the tick can remain unnoticed for long periods. Ixodes scapularis will attach to its host and suck on the blood for a few days. The lengthy feeding process makes them good at transmitting infection. If the host has a bloodborne infection (e.g., Lyme disease), the tick may ingest the pathogen and become infected. If the tick feeds on a human later, that human can become infected with the same pathogen if it is a prolonged blood meal. However, if the tick is removed quickly (~ 24 hours), the risk of acquiring disease is reduced.2 The longer the tick is attached, the greater the risk of becoming infected. The risk of human infection is greater during the spring and summer.

Ixodes scapularis as a Disease Vector

Babesiosis

The causative agent of babesiosis are Basebesia microti and other Babesia species. These parasites preferentially infect red blood cells. In the United States, most cases are caused by Babesia microti.3 Babesiosis is most frequently reported in the upper midwestern and northeastern regions of the United States, where Babesia microti is endemic. Although this parasite is generally transmitted by Ixodes scapularis, Babesia parasites can also be transmitted via blood transfusions and, in some cases, congenitally. Babesiosis can range from asymptomatic to life-threatening. Some of the common signs and symptoms include fever, chills, sweats, general malaise or fatigue, myalgia, arthralgia, headaches, anorexia, nausea, and dark urine. Less common symptoms include cough, sore throat, emotional lability, depression, photophobia, conjunctival infection.3 Not all infected persons are symptomatic or febrile. Clinical presentation usually manifests within several weeks after exposure, but may develop or recur months after infection. The incubation period for Babesia species parasites is approximately 1-9+ weeks. Laboratory findings associated with babesiosis include decreased hematocrit due to hemolytic anemia, thrombocytopenia, elevated serum creatinine and blood urea nitrogen values, and mildly elevated hepatic transaminase values.3 To diagnose babesiosis in the laboratory, identification of intraerythrocytic Babesia parasites by light-microscopic examination of a blood smear, positive Babesia (or Babesia microti) PCR analysis, or isolation of Babesia parasites from a whole blood specimen by animal inoculation in a reference lab are recommended procedures. Additionally, demonstration of a Babesia-specific antibody titer by indirect fluorescent antibody testing for IgG can be used as supportive laboratory criteria—although it is not enough evidence to support a diagnosis of an active infection.3 Treatment for babesia usually lasts 7-10 days with a combination of two drugs: atovaquone plus azithromycin or clindamycin plus quinine, with the latter being the standard of care for severely ill patients.

Anaplasmosis

Anaplasmosis, formerly known as Human Granulocytic Ehrlichiosis, is caused by Anaplasma phagocytophilum. Anaplasmosis is commonly reported in the upper Midwest and northeastern regions of the United States. The incubation period for Anaplasma phagocytophilum is 5-14 days.3 Some of the common signs and symptoms of anaplasmosis include fever, chills, rigors, severe headaches, malaise, myalgia, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and anorexia, and, in some cases, rash. The general laboratory findings for anaplasmosis during the first week of clinical disease include mild anemia, thrombocytopenia, leukopenia, and mild to moderate elevations in hepatic transaminases.3 Under the microscope, the visualization of morulae in the cytoplasm of granulocytes during examination of blood smears is indicative of diagnosis. However, to definitely determine diagnosis in the laboratory, detection of DNA by PCR of whole blood is recommended during the first week of illness. Additionally, demonstration of a four-fold change in IgG specific antibody titer by indirect immunofluorescence antibody assay in paired serum samples is recommended. The first serum sample should be taken during the first week of illness and the second serum sample should be taken 2-4 weeks after. Moreover, immunohistochemical staining of the organism from the skin, tissue, or bone marrow biopsies is also recommended for diagnosis.3 Anaplasmosis is treated with doxycycline. Treatment should be started once there is a clinical suspicion of disease, as delaying treatment may result in severe illness or in death.

Lyme Disease

The causative agents for Lyme disease include Borrelia burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii. Lyme disease is most frequently reported in the Upper Midwestern and northeastern regions of the United States with some cases being reported in northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Data from 2015 shows that 95% of Lyme disease cases were reported in the following 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.3 The incubation period for Borrelia parasites is usually 3-30 days.3 Some of the early (3-30 days after a tick bite) signs and symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes may occur with an absence of rash. Erythema migrans is a characteristic rash of Lyme disease and it occurs in 70%-80% of infected people.4 This rash starts at the site of a tick bite after an average of 3-30 days (average is 7 days) and it gradually expands over several days reaching up to 30 cm across.4 As it enlarges, it can result in the characteristic “bulls-eye” appearance; it may feel warm to the touch and it is rarely itchy or painful. Some of the later (days to months after a tick bite) signs and symptoms include severe headache and neck stiffness, additional erythema migrans rashes in other areas of the body, facial palsy, arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling—especially in the knees, intermittent pain in the tendons, muscles, joints, and bones. It may also lead to heart palpitations or Lyme carditis, episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, nerve pain, and shooting pains, numbness, or tingling of the hands and feet.4 Laboratory diagnosis for Lyme disease includes the demonstration of IgM or IgG antibodies in serum and a two-step testing protocol is highly recommended.5 Moreover, isolation of an organism from a clinical specimen is also recommended. Treatment for Lyme disease includes antibiotics such as doxycycline, cefuroxime axetil, or amoxicillin.

When assessing a patient for any tick-borne diseases, the clinical presentation should be considered alongside the likelihood that the patient has been exposed to an infected Ixodes scapularis tick, or any other tick. Moreover, if a tick is found, engorgement of the tick should be considered when assessing for the possibility of disease transmission.

References

  1. Thevanayagam S. Ixodes scapularis [Internet]. 2012. Available from: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Ixodes_scapularis/.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lifecycle of Blacklegged Ticks [Internet]. 2011 [updated November 15, 2011]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/transmission/blacklegged.html.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tickborne Diseases of the United States: A Reference Manual for Healthcare Providers [Internet]2018. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/tickbornediseases/TickborneDiseases-P.pdf.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lyme Disease – Signs and Symtoms [Internet]. 2021. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/signs_symptoms/index.html.
  5. Mead P, Petersen J, Hinckley A. Updated CDC Recommendation for Serologic Diagnosis of Lyme Disease. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2019;68(32):703. Epub 2019/08/16. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6832a4. PubMed PMID: 31415492; PubMed Central PMCID: PMCPMC6818702 potential conflicts of interest. No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed.

Amelia Lamberty is a Master’s student in the Pathology Master’s Program.

-Christi Wojewoda, MD, is the Director of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an Associate Professor at the University of Vermont.

Hematology Case Study: Temporal Arteritis or COVID-19?

What is your least favorite test in hematology? The first things that come to my mind are those tests that are time consuming, tedious, and manual. I’ve worked in a hematology lab that did Kleihaur betke (KB) tests, and whenever I worked, I seemed to get one, or sometimes more, in a given shift. And when I worked in blood bank, we did KBs in blood bank, and I certainly did my share there, too. KBs seem to follow me around! Those, I must admit, are probably my least favorite, but I know that many techs dread parasite smears or % parasitemia, reviewing 150 or more fields or counting thousands of cells on a smear. Manual body fluid counts, manual reticulocyte counts, and manual platelet counts are likely some others on our lists of “not favorites.” Basically, anything that requires a lot of time, manual counting, and math!

One other test that probably doesn’t make many “favorites” list is the Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR), or sed rate. Remember old fashioned Westergren Sed Rates that took an hour to do, while the ER doctor kept calling looking for their “STAT” results? There are still labs that set up manual sed rates that take an hour, and modified manual methods that take “only” 15 or 30 minutes. Some semi-automated methods can give us results in a couple minutes, but still require techs to fill a capillary tube and load the instrument. Fortunately, real help may have arrived, in the form of fully automated ESR instruments! There are instruments now that actually make ESRs almost fun. I’ve never seen techs so excited about a new instrument as they were when we got iSeds. This thing is amazing! It’s like a little Ferris wheel for sed rates. You pop the whole tube in, they go for a little ride around the Ferris wheel, then drop out, in less than 30 seconds. And you can keep loading tubes even while it’s running. A truly Stat ESR. Now that’s amazing!

Image 1. Alcor iSED Automated ESR Instrument

While these new instruments make ESR’s easier to run, with more reproducible results, and less hands-on time, they still don’t get much love, because, well…there are newer tests available for inflammation, and we know that the ESR is not a specific test for diagnosis. Across the years, some lab tests have become antiquated and obsolete…bleeding times come to mind, along with CK-MB. In 2010 an article was published that supported discontinuing laboratory tests that no longer have clinical utility in the lab. The ESR was on this list. Yet, many labs still perform ESRs. Should the ESR be phased out, or are there still valid reasons for ordering them?

Even though the test is considered non-specific, the ESR test is considered helpful in diagnosing two specific inflammatory diseasestemporal arteritis (TA) and polymyalgia rheumatica. A high ESR is one of the main test results used to confirm these diagnoses. It is also used to monitor disease activity and response to therapy in both these conditions. Almost all cases present with an elevated ESR, though a normal ESR should not be used to rule out these conditions.

Case 1: A 70 year old White female was admitted to the ER complaining of throbbing headache and blurry vision. She stated that the headache started 2 days ago, had been at her temples at first but in the past few hours was getting worse. She stated that she was prompted to come to the ER because now her whole scalp hurt, and her vision was blurry. A CBC, Basic panel, CRP and ESR were ordered. The CBC results were unremarkable, other than and increased platelet count of 480,000/µL. ESR was 110 mm/hr. Basic panel results were normal. CRP was 2.51 md/dL.

The patient was started on prednisone immediately, and a temporal artery biopsy was scheduled, with a suspicion of temporal arteritis (TA), also known as giant cell arteritis (GCA). TA is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the temporal arteries. Under the microscope, the inflamed cells of these arteries look giant, which is how the disease got its name. The inflammation causes constriction of the arteries, can affect chewing and eating, and may cause blindness if not treated promptly. Treatment of choice are corticosteroids, often prescribed for at least a year. Symptoms are monitored frequently and lab results, including the ESR, can be used to monitor the condition and response to treatment.

If you are still wondering if the ESR should be discontinued as a useful test, we are now seeing patients with COVID infection and elevated ESRs. Over the past 2 years, several articles have been written about elevated ESRs in COVID-19 patients. One study aimed to evaluate the usefulness of ESR in distinguishing severe from non-severe COVID-19 cases. The study suggests that severe COVID-19 cases are associated with higher elevations of ESR, as compared to non-severe cases. A case report of a patient recovering from COVID described an increased ESR. The high ESR persisted for a long time even after the patient recovered from COVID-19, while no other inflammatory processes or other conditions known to raise ESRs were found.

Case 2: My second case is a case of a 58 year old woman who presented with an earache and a pulsing temporal headache. Ear infection was ruled out and the patient was referred to ophthalmology for possible TA. The patient’s CRP was elevated but her ESR and platelet counts were within normal reference range. The patient was COVID tested as part of a pre-op workup before temporal artery biopsy and the COVID-19 test came back positive. There have been cases in literature in the last year of this new set of symptoms in COVID-19 patients. The conclusion from these cases is that if a patient appears with symptoms consistent with TA with an elevated CRP but with a normal ESR and platelet counts, that the patients should be tested for COVID.

The ESR is one of the oldest laboratory tests still in use. The study of the sedimentation of blood was one of the principles on which ancient Greek medicine was based. In the 1700’s, physicians noticed that the rate of red blood cell sedimentation changed during illness. This theory was first introduced as a laboratory test over 100 years ago. Depending on the historic accounts and articles you read, it was first described by a Polish physician, Edmund Biernacki, in 1897, or by a Swedish physician, Robert Fahraeus, in 1915. Biernacki proved the connection between the rate of sedimentation and the amount of fibrinogen in the blood and suggested using the ESR in diagnostics. Alf Vilhelm Albertsson Westergren (a familiar name!) also presented a similar description of the ESR. In the early 1920’s. Dr Westergren went further to develop the blood drawing technique and defined standards for the ESR. To this day, the Westergren Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate method is recognized as the gold standard reference method for ESR measurement.

Image 2. Manual Westergren ESRs

The sed rate measures the rate at which erythrocytes sediment by gravity, in mm/hour. RBCs usually repel each other due to zeta potential and aggregation is inhibited. In conditions with increased fibrinogen or immunoglobulins, these proteins coat the RBCs, promoting aggregation. The RBCs form rouleaux which settle faster than individual RBCs. In conditions such as anemia, the ESR will be high because with a lower hematocrit, the velocity of the upward flow of plasma is altered and red blood cell aggregates fall faster. In polycythemia the increased blood viscosity can cause a lower ESR. In sickle cell anemia, and other conditions such as spherocytosis, the RBCs are abnormally shaped and will not form rouleaux easily, thus decreasing the ESR.

The ESR is an easy, inexpensive, non-specific test that has been used for many years to help diagnose conditions associated with acute and chronic inflammation. An elevated ESR is not associated with a specific diagnosis; therefore, it must be used in conjunction with other tests. Conversely, a normal ESR cannot be used to exclude the presence of significant disease. The ESR should also not be used as a screening test in asymptomatic patients. Since fibrinogen is an acute-phase reactant, the ESR is increased in many inflammatory and neoplastic conditions that increase fibrinogen, including diabetes, infection, pelvic inflammatory disease, lupus. rheumatoid arthritis, acute coronary syndrome, and neoplasms. However, noninflammatory factors such as older age, female gender, and pregnancy can also cause elevation of the ESR. 

Historically, the ESR was used to indicate inflammatory conditions and monitor disease progression or response to treatment. More specific tests have been developed for many of these conditions, but the ESR still has its advantages. Interestingly enough, for a test that 12 years ago was on the ‘antiquated’ list, in the past 2 years there have been over 50 scientific journal articles written about the ESR. The ESR can eliminate unnecessary testing and help decrease medical costs. It has its advantages in small labs and in rural areas because it can provide quick results without expensive instrumentation. For labs that do not perform more sophisticated tests such as CRP and procalcitonin, the ESR can provide answers without waiting for results from reference laboratories. Even though an ESR may take 1 hour, it is much faster than send out testing. It can therefore expedite a diagnosis, or normal results can give the physician and patient timely reassurance.

What is your favorite or least favorite test in hematology? Let me know and I can highlight it in a future blog!

References

  1. Au, Benjamin Wai Yin MBBS, MMed (Ophth); Ku, Dominic J. BMed, MSurg; Sheth, Shivanand J. MBBS, MS (Ophthal) Thinking Beyond Giant Cell Arteritis in COVID-19 Times, Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology: March 2022 – Volume 42 – Issue 1 – p e137-e139
  2. Brigden ML. Clinical utility of the erythrocyte sedimentation rate. Am Fam Physician. 1999 Oct 1;60(5):1443-50. PMID: 10524488.
  3. Hale AJ, Ricotta DN, Freed JA. Evaluating the Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate. JAMA. 2019;321(14):1404–1405. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.1178
  4. Pu, Sheng-Lan et al. “Unexplained elevation of erythrocyte sedimentation rate in a patient recovering from COVID-19: A case report.” World journal of clinical cases vol. 9,6 (2021): 1394-1401. doi:10.12998/wjcc.v9.i6.1394
  5. Tishkowski K, Gupta V. Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557485/
  6. Alan H. B. Wu, PhDKent Lewandrowski, MD, et al. Antiquated Tests Within the Clinical Pathology Laboratory. The American Journal of Managed Care. September 2010, Volume 16, Issue 9
  7. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/332483-workup
Socha-small

-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CMBBCM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 40 years and has taught as an adjunct faculty member at Merrimack College, UMass Lowell and Stevenson University for over 20 years.  She has worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. She currently works at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.

Microbiology Case Study: A 26 Year Old Female with Diarrhea

Case Description

A 26 year old female with a past medical history of Hemoglobin SC disease (Hb SC) and iron deficiency anemia presented to the emergency department with lower abdominal pain and diarrhea for three days. She began having multiple episodes of watery diarrhea, followed by bloody diarrhea after eating at a restaurant. During this time, she also had fever, chills, body aches, and headache. The patient had been on a course of ceftriaxone and metronidazole started three weeks prior for sore throat, ear infection, and bacterial vaginosis. She completed her metronidazole course prior to the current illness. Abdominal computed tomography revealed splenomegaly and a mildly dilated, fluid-filled appendix without evidence of infectious or inflammatory abnormalities. Hemoglobin on admission was 11.1 mg/dL (Reference Range: 11.2- 15.7 mg/dL) and MCV 62.9 fL (Reference Range: 79.4- 94.8 fL), which is similar to her baseline.

Laboratory Identification

The patient underwent work up for community-acquired diarrhea. Stool cultures grew non-typhoidal Salmonella (Image 1). Blood cultures performed at the time of admission flagged positive with gram negative rods which were also identified as Salmonella species by MALDI-TOF. The organism was susceptible to ampicillin, ceftriaxone, ciprofloxacin, and trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole. The patient continued on intravenous ceftriaxone and responded to therapy. She was discharged home on oral ciprofloxacin.

Image 1. Salmonella Microbiologic Diagnosis using Xylose Lysine Deoxycholate agar and Triple Sugar Iron slant. A) Non-typhoidal strains of Salmonella are lactose non-fermenting, hydrogen sulfide producing (black colonies) enteric Gram-negative rods on Xylose Lysine Deoxycholate agar (XLD agar). B) Non-typhoidal strains of Salmonella are Alkaline (pink) over Acid (yellow) with the production of copious amounts of hydrogen sulfide on Triple Sugar Iron agar (TSI).

Discussion

Hemoglobin SC disease (Hb SC) is the second most common hemoglobinopathy after Sickle Cell Disease (SCD, Hb SS) globally.1 Hb SC disease occurs when a patient inherits both hemoglobin S and hemoglobin C alleles. Hemoglobin S and C variants are caused by point mutations in the hemoglobin beta- chain, and both variants lead to reduced affinity to the alpha-chain. While hemoglobin C is an abnormal form of hemoglobin that does not cause sickling on its own, when co-inherited with hemoglobin S, the beta chains polymerize, causing red cell sickling when oxygen tension is lowered in the blood.2 Patients develop anemia due to reduced red cell lifespan (27-29 days for Hb SC vs. 15-17 days for Hb SS) and subsequent destruction of red blood cells.3

Complications arise from vascular occlusion and destruction of red blood cells, leading to gallstones, pulmonary infarction, priapism, and/or cerebral infarction. Other complications include avascular necrosis of the femoral head, bone marrow necrosis, renal papillary necrosis, retinopathies, splenomegaly, and recurrent pregnancy loss. Although Hb SC patients often exhibit similar symptomology to sickle cell disease, symptoms are typically milder and present later in childhood.2,3 In comparison to patients with Hb SS, Hb SC patients have milder anemia, less frequent sickle cells, and less severe hemolysis. While Hb SC patients have fewer sickling episodes compared to Hb SS patients, Hb SC patients have more severe retinopathy and splenomegaly. It is also important to note that the enlargement of the spleen is often caused by red blood cell sequestration and the optimal function of the spleen is significantly reduced (functional hyposplenia), which can lead to increased risk of infection from encapsulated bacteria.

Diagnosis of Hb SC disease is typically made by performing hemoglobin electrophoresis (Image 2). Hemoglobin electrophoresis separates the differing varieties of hemoglobin by size and electrical charge. Capillary electrophoresis separates hemoglobin variants based on the “zone” of detection where each variant hemoglobin appears based on a reference pattern. Normal hemoglobin (A, F, A2) is easily discriminated from variant hemoglobins (S, C, E, D), and quantification allows for detection of beta-thalassemia (increased A2 fraction). While useful as a screening tool, the hemoglobin variants identified in the “zones” are not specific. For example, Hb C and Hb Constant Spring share a zone, and Hb A2 shares a zone with Hb O- Arab. Variants detected by capillary electrophoresis are confirmed by a second method, and in this case Hb SC was confirmed by acid agarose gel (Sebia Hydrogel). When subjected to acid gel electrophoresis, Hb C and Hb S migrate in separate bands, while Hb A, A2, D, and E comigrate in the “A” band, and the “F” band may contain F in addition to the glycated fraction of normal adult Hb A. Patients with Hb SC disease will have variants detected in the S and C zones in capillary electrophoresis and lack signal in the A zone.4

Image 2. Laboratory Diagnosis of Hb SC disease includes hemoglobin electrophoresis and peripheral blood smear review. A) Hemoglobin capillary electrophoresis (pH 9.4) separates F, S, C, A2, A (Sebia, Capillarys 2 Flex Piercing). B) Acid agarose gel (pH 6.0-6.2) separates hemoglobins F, A, S, and C (Sebia, Hydragel Acid QC lane).  C) Peripheral blood smear morphology showing characteristic Hb SC forms including target cells, boat shaped cells (single arrow), red cell with crystals (double arrow), and hemighost cells (triple arrow).

Examination of the peripheral blood smear from a patient with Hb SC disease (Image 2C) reveals frequent target cells, boat-shaped cells (taco shaped), and only rarely contains classic sickle cells. Hemoglobin C crystals can be seen, both free floating and inside red cells, a feature of CC and SC disease but not seen in SS disease. Hemi-ghost cells and cells with irregular membrane contractions are also more frequent in Hb SC disease. In contrast, sickle cells are rarely observed in peripheral smears from Hb SC patients.

Salmonellaeare flagellated gram negative bacilli that are members of the Enterobacterales. Salmonellosis is typically foodborne in nature and presents as a self-limiting acute gastroenteritis.5,6 However, these organisms can invade beyond the gastrointestinal tract resulting in bacteremia.6 This case presents Salmonella as a cause of bacteremia in a patient with Hb SC disease following a bout of gastroenteritis. Although there is a well-known association between SCD and invasive infections with Salmonella, the incidence of Salmonella infection in patients with Hb SC disease has not been well studied. Patients with SCD, particularly those in Africa, are at risk for developing invasive disease caused by non-typhoidal Salmonella, including osteomyelitis, meningitis, and bacteremia. It has been hypothesized that disruptions in the gut microbiome and increased permeability of enterocytes makes SCD patients more prone to invasive Salmonella infections.6 Furthermore, the compromised function of the spleen in both patients with SCD and Hb SC disease increases the risk of disseminated infection by encapsulated bacteria and Gram negative rods. The spleen plays an important housekeeping role removing old or damaged erythrocytes, but also has an important immunological function housing memory B cells, producing antibodies and macrophages that phagocytize circulating bacteria, particulates or other debris and then present the antigens to other immunological cells in the spleen.7 Although sepsis caused by Salmonella is an occasional progression of gastroenteritis, this patient’s Hb SC disease likely increased the likelihood of bacteremia because of her functional asplenia.

References

  1. Weatherall DJ. The inherited diseases of hemoglobin are an emerging global health burden. Blood. 2010;115(22):4331–6.
  2. Tim R. Randolph,24 – Hemoglobinopathies (structural defects in hemoglobin),Editor(s): Elaine M. Keohane, Catherine N. Otto, Jeanine M. Walenga,Rodak’s Hematology (Sixth Edition), Elsevier, 2020, Pages 394-423, ISBN 9780323530453, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-53045-3.00033-7.
  3. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780323530453000337)
  4. Nathan, D. G., Orkin, S. H., & Oski, F. A. (2015). Sickle Cell Disease. In Nathan and Oski’s hematology and oncology of infancy and childhood (8th ed., pp. 675-714). Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier. Retrieved from https://www.clinicalkey.com/#!/content/book/3-s2.0-B9781455754144000206y.com/#!/content/book/3-s2.0-B9781455754144000206. Accessed 2022
  5. Bain, BJ. (2020) Haemoglobinopathy Diagnosis, Third Edition. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd
  6. Kurtz, J. R., Goggins, J. A., & McLachlan, J. B. (2017). Salmonella infection: Interplay between the bacteria and host immune system. Immunology letters190, 42–50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.imlet.2017.07.006
  7. Lim, S.H., Methé, B.A., Knoll, B.M. et al. Invasive non-typhoidal Salmonella in sickle cell disease in Africa: is increased gut permeability the missing link?. J Transl Med 16, 239 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12967-018-1622-4
  8. Leone G, Pizzigallo E. Bacterial Infections Following Splenectomy for Malignant and Nonmalignant Hematologic Diseases. Mediterr J Hematol

-John Stack is a first year AP/CP resident at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

-Marisa Juntilla is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Dr. Juntilla is a board certified Clinical Pathologist and is certified in the subspecialty of Hematopathology.

-Dominick Cavuoti is a Professor in the Department of Pathology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Dr. Cavuoti is a board certified AP/CP who is a practicing Clinical Microbiologist, Infectious Disease pathologist and Cytopathologist.

-Andrew Clark, PhD, D(ABMM) is an Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in the Department of Pathology, and Associate Director of the Clements University Hospital microbiology laboratory. He completed a CPEP-accredited postdoctoral fellowship in Medical and Public Health Microbiology at National Institutes of Health, and is interested in antimicrobial susceptibility and anaerobe pathophysiology.

-Clare McCormick-Baw, MD, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Microbiology at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. She has a passion for teaching about laboratory medicine in general and the best uses of the microbiology lab in particular.

Microbiology Case Study: An Adult Presents with Hand Wound Following a Dog Bite

Case Presentation

An adult presented to the emergency department with a finger infection persisting for the past 14 days after being bitten by her dog. The finger was swollen, tender and red but the patient denied fever, chills, or purulent drainage. The patient was previously given 10 days of doxycycline and amoxicillin-clavulanic acid without any improvement. The patient underwent incision and drainage and the specimen was sent for aerobic culture and Gram stain. No organisms or WBCs were seen on the Gram stain. On day 3 of incubation, a yellow colony was observed on the chocolate agar. The colony was streaked out onto another chocolate plate for subculture (Image 1). MALDI-TOF identified this organism as Neisseria animoralis.

Image 1. Subculture of Neisseria animoralis.

Discussion

Neisseria animoralis and Neisseria zoodegmatis are primarily zoonotic organisms found as normal oral flora of cats and dogs. Both can cause wound infections in humans following animal bites. However, these organisms are under recognized animal bite pathogens, often leading to their identifications being dismissed as contaminants. While there are limited published studies on this organism, it is important to recognize its role in wound infections, as in our case. Due to lack of awareness and reduced recovery in culture, case studies have shown correlations with this organism and poor healing and chronic wound infections.

On Gram stain, N. animoralis appears as a Gram negative coccoid rod. In culture, N. animoralis is a slow growing organism that produces yellow or white colonies that are shiny and smooth. N. animaloris produces acid from glucose, but not lactose, sucrose, or maltose. MALDI-TOF is most commonly used for identification.

Limited N. animoralis treatment data are available currently. Most animal bite-related infections are polymicrobial in nature and thus, antibiotic treatment is broad spectrum to cover the most common aerobic and anaerobic organisms.

Resources

  • Johannes Elias, Matthias Frosch, and Ulrich Vogel, 2019. Neisseria, In: Carroll KC, Pfaller MA Manual of Clinical Microbiology, 12th Edition. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781683670438.MCM.ch36
  • Heydecke A, Andersson B, Holmdahl T, Melhus A. Human wound infections caused by Neisseria animaloris and Neisseria zoodegmatis, former CDC Group EF-4a and EF-4b. Infect Ecol Epidemiol. 2013;3:10.3402/iee.v3i0.20312. Published 2013 Aug 2. doi:10.3402/iee.v3i0.20312
  • Kathryn C. Helmig, Mark S. Anderson, Thomas F. Byrd, Camille Aubin-Lemay, Moheb S. Moneim, A Rare Case of Neisseria animaloris Hand Infection and Associated Nonhealing Wound, Journal of Hand Surgery Global Online, Volume 2, Issue 2, 2020, Pages 113-115, ISSN 2589-5141 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhsg.2020.01.003.
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-Paige M.K. Larkin, PhD, D(ABMM), M(ASCP)CM is the Director of Molecular Microbiology and Associate Director of Clinical Microbiology at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, IL. Her interests include mycology, mycobacteriology, point-of-care testing, and molecular diagnostics, especially next generation sequencing.