Resistance to triazoles was recently reported in Aspergillus fumigatus isolates cultured from patients with invasive aspergillosis. The prevalence of azole resistance in A. fumigatus is unknown. We investigated the prevalence and spread of azole resistance using our culture collection that contained A. fumigatus isolates collected between 1994 and 2007.
Methods and Findings
We investigated the prevalence of itraconazole (ITZ) resistance in 1,912 clinical A. fumigatus isolates collected from 1,219 patients in our University Medical Centre over a 14-y period. The spread of resistance was investigated by analyzing 147 A. fumigatus isolates from 101 patients, from 28 other medical centres in The Netherlands and 317 isolates from six other countries. The isolates were characterized using phenotypic and molecular methods. The electronic patient files were used to determine the underlying conditions of the patients and the presence of invasive aspergillosis. ITZ-resistant isolates were found in 32 of 1,219 patients. All cases were observed after 1999 with an annual prevalence of 1.7% to 6%. The ITZ-resistant isolates also showed elevated minimum inhibitory concentrations of voriconazole, ravuconazole, and posaconazole. A substitution of leucine 98 for histidine in the cyp51A gene, together with two copies of a 34-bp sequence in tandem in the gene promoter (TR/L98H), was found to be the dominant resistance mechanism. Microsatellite analysis indicated that the ITZ-resistant isolates were genetically distinct but clustered. The ITZ-sensitive isolates were not more likely to be responsible for invasive aspergillosis than the ITZ-resistant isolates. ITZ resistance was found in isolates from 13 patients (12.8%) from nine other medical centres in The Netherlands, of which 69% harboured the TR/L98H substitution, and in six isolates originating from four other countries.
Azole resistance has emerged in A. fumigatus and might be more prevalent than currently acknowledged. The presence of a dominant resistance mechanism in clinical isolates suggests that isolates with this mechanism are spreading in our environment.
Aspergillosis is a group of lung diseases caused by infection with Aspergillus, a mold (fungus) that grows on decaying plant matter. Because Aspergillus is widespread in the environment, people often breathe in its spores. For most people, this is not a problem—their immune system rapidly kills the fungal spores. However, people with asthma or cystic fibrosis sometimes develop allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis, a condition in which the spores trigger an allergic reaction in the lungs that causes coughing, wheezing. and breathlessness. Other people can develop an aspergilloma—a fungus ball that grows in cavities in the lung caused by other illnesses such as tuberculosis. However, the most serious form of aspergillosis is invasive aspergillosis. This pneumonia-like infection, which is fatal if left untreated, affects people who have a weakened immune system (for example, people with leukemia) and can spread from the lungs into the heart, brain, and other parts of the body. Aspergillosis is usually treated with triazole drugs, which inhibit an enzyme that the fungus needs to make its cell membranes; this enzyme is encoded by a gene called cyp51A. Voriconazole is the first-line therapy for aspergillosis but itraconazole and posaconazole are also sometimes used and ravuconazole is in clinical development.
Why Was This Study Done?
About half of patients with invasive aspergillosis recover if they are given triazoles. Worryingly, however, strains of Aspergillus fumigatus (the type of Aspergillus usually involved in invasive aspergillosis) with resistance to several triazoles have recently been isolated from some patients in The Netherlands. If multi-azole resistant strains of A. fumigatus become common, they could have a serious impact on the management of invasive aspergillosis. However, noone knows what proportion of A. fumigatus strains isolated from patients with aspergillosis are resistant to several azole drugs. That is, noone knows the “prevalence” of multi-azole resistance. In this study, the researchers investigate the prevalence and development of azole resistance in A. fumigatus.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Since 1994, all fungal isolates from patients at the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands have been stored. The researchers' search of this collection yielded 1,908 A. fumigatus isolates that had been collected from 1,219 patients over a 14-year period. Of these, the isolates from 32 patients grew in the presence of itraconazole. All the itraconazole-resistant isolates (which also had increased resistance to voriconazole, ravuconazole, and posaconazole) were collected after 1999; the annual prevalence of itraconazole-resistant isolates ranged from 1.7% to 6%. The researchers then sequenced the cyp51A gene in each resistant isolate. Thirty had a genetic alteration represented as TR/L98H. This “dominant resistance mechanism” consisted of a single amino acid change in the cyp51A gene and an alteration in the gene's promoter region (the region that controls how much protein is made from a gene). The researchers also analyzed A. fumigatus isolates from patients admitted to 28 other hospitals in the Netherlands. Itraconazole resistance was present in isolates from 13 patients (out of 101 patients) from nine hospitals; the TR/L98H genetic alteration was present in 69% of the itraconazole-resistant isolates. Finally, itraconazole resistance was present in six isolates from four other countries (out of 317 isolates from six countries); only one Norwegian isolate had the TR/L98H genetic alteration.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that azole resistance is emerging in A. fumigatus and may already be more prevalent than generally thought. Given the dominance of the TR/L98H genetic alteration in the azole-resistant clinical isolates, the researchers suggest that A. fumigatus isolates harboring this alteration might be present and spreading in the environment rather than being selected for during azole treatment of patients. Why azole resistance should develop in A. fumigatus in the environment is unclear but might be caused by the use of azole-containing fungicides. Further studies are now urgently needed to find out if this is the case, to measure the international prevalence and spread of A. fumigatus isolates harboring the TR/L98H genetic alteration, and, most importantly, to develop alternative treatments for patients with azole-resistant aspergillosis.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050219.
The MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia has a page on aspergillosis (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Direct health encyclopedia has detailed information about all aspects of aspergillosis
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has information about aspergillosis
Paul Verweij and colleagues show that azole resistance has emerged inAspergillus fumigatus in The Netherlands and that a dominant resistance mechanism is present in clinical isolates.