Tracking down Q fever bacteria

Between 2007 and 2010, the Netherlands experienced the largest Q fever outbreak ever reported in the world. Alumnus Jesper Weehuizen was still in secondary school at the time. Now he is conducting doctoral research on this disease at UMC Utrecht. ‘Although it was difficult for the people affected, the outbreak left a goldmine of information for researchers. I hope that my research will enable us to detect the Q fever bacteria more quickly and easily in the future. It is still a rather “elusive” bacteria, with serious consequences.’

Jesper Weehuizen (Medicine, 2019) is physician-scientist in Internal Medicine at UMC Utrecht.

Innovative technique using fluorescence

Jesper is exploring whether the Q fever bacteria can be detected using a new method. ‘Around 1-5% of people who become infected will suffer from a chronic form of the disease. They take antibiotics for one-and-a-half to two years, but the bacteria play hide-and-seek in the heart valves and aorta. I’ll soon be travelling to Denmark with tissue samples from these chronic Q fever patients. Together with a Danish veterinarian, I’ll examine whether we can detect the bacteria with fluorescence in situ hybridisation (FISH), a method that is currently used for procedures such as breast cancer diagnoses and pre-natal NIPT tests. Using this type of method for infections is a new approach.’

Database-analyse op best practices

Another part of Jesper’s research focuses on analysing the Q fever database, which contains data on 600 patients who fell ill during the epidemic. ‘I’m analysing which diagnoses and treatments people received at the time. The statistics should then indicate which methods are best, and how long patients should be treated and monitored. I would eventually like to publish an article, because in addition to improving diagnosis and treatment, I also want to help advance science with solid research results.’ 

Johanna Alida van Leerzem (Medicine, 1959) left her entire estate, in the amount of €1.2 million, to the university where she studied medicine in the 1950s. This legacy will become part of the Utrecht University Fund.
Jan Jelrik Oosterheert (Medicine, 2005) supervises Jesper Weehuizen’s doctoral research. He works at UMC Utrecht as an internist specialising in infectious diseases.

Grant from a unique bequest

The co-supervisor of this research is Jan Jelrik Oosterheert. He is also a UU alumnus and now works as an internist specialising in infectious diseases. Jesper: ‘You could say that I’m following in his footsteps, but at the same time, he coaches me to explore my own alternative paths as well. I can always drop by or call for advice.’

Another alumnus, Ms Van Leerzem, also plays a crucial role. ‘She studied at UU in the 1950s and left her entire estate (€1.2 million) to Utrecht University after her death. She wanted her bequest to be used for clinical scientific research conducted by young researchers in the field of internal medicine. I’ve received a €10,000 grant from her bequest. I am grateful that her contribution has made this research possible.’

The figures

It’s 2007, the day after Whit Monday, when a GP in Brabant asks the Municipal Health Service whether any respiratory infections have been reported in the region. A few days prior, another GP had also called to report two serious lower respiratory infections. In retrospect, these were the first signs of the major Q fever outbreak in the Netherlands that would last until 2010. Four thousand people were eventually infected. According to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), this is an underestimate and the true figures are significantly higher. Of those who contract Q fever, 20% suffer from long-term complaints such as Q fever fatigue syndrome. Around 2% develop chronic Q fever, a serious condition with many symptoms, which can sometimes result in death. A total of 95 people have died since the outbreak. The zoonosis originates in the placentas and membranes of goats and sheep. The bacteria comes out during birth and can travel through the air up to a kilometre around the farm.

Also read the story of...