Med Mystery: The Case of the Elusive Infection

By Ariel Bleicher and illustrated by Eleanor Davis UCSF Magazine Winter 2020

For 15 years, nobody could figure out what was making a young woman so sick. Then neurologist Michael Wilson, MD, tried a radical new test.

Four panel cartoon illustration: panel 1.

Right panel, illustration of male doctor in a white coat. Text below reads: “Michael Wilson, MD, Rachleff Professor, UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.” Two speech bubbles read: “By the time I learned about the patient, she’d been very ill for years. Her problems started when she was 26. She had taken antibiotics and was better...until she had a baby.” Top left panel, top left, illustration of young woman sweating and in distress with a speech bubble reading: “What’s happening to me?” Text to the right reads: “2002, Neck pain, Back pain, Fatigue, Fever.” Middle left panel, illustration of young woman taking two pills. Middle left panel, illustration of young woman, sweating and in distress, holding a baby with a speech bubble reading: “The chills and fevers are back, and the pain is even worse!” Text to the right reads: “2006.” Bottom left panel, illustration of silhouettes of three doctors next to the woman, who is hunched forward in pain. Three speech bubbles read: “We’ve tested for infections... autoimmune conditions...cancers...but we just can’t find the culprit.” Text to the right reads: “2007, 2008, 2009.”

Four panel cartoon illustration: panel 2.

Illustration of the male doctor in white coat looking through a magnifying glass. Text in upper right corner reads: “2017.” The panel background features a DNA strand, the body of a tapeworm, and other small creatures. The magnifying glass is focused on small creatures with text reading: “Parasites, Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi.” Two speech bubbles read: “Her case was so perplexing that the National Institutes of Health got involved. That’s when they emailed me about a new infectious disease test my UCSF colleagues* and I had developed. Standard tests look for only one infection at a time, but our test searches for thousands. It decodes pieces of DNA from a patient’s spinal fluid and then looks for matches in a database of all known infections. It’s like using fingerprints to catch a criminal.” Text below the panel reads: “*Including Charles Chiu, MD, PhD; Joe DeRisi, PhD, the Gordon Tomkins Professor; and Steve Miller, MD.”

Four panel cartoon illustration: panel 3.

Illustration of hand holding magnifying glass on a panel with DNA strands and small creatures. The magnifying glass is focused on a tapeworm’s head. Text above the head reads: “We ran the test for the woman.” Text below the head reads: “Just days later we had a match.” Text below the tapeworm reads: “She had a tapeworm!”

Four panel cartoon illustration: panel 4.

Illustration of the male doctor and the woman with a tear on her cheek, hugging her young son. Two speech bubbles read: “Luckily, there was a treatment. At long last, the end of her arduous journey was in sight.”

Seven panel cartoon illustration: panel 1.

Illustration of male doctor in a white coat. Text below reads: “Michael Wilson, MD, Rachleff Professor, UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.” Speech bubble reads: “By the time I learned about the patient, she’d been very ill for years. Her problems started when she was 26.”

Seven panel cartoon illustration: panel 2.

Three panels. Top left panel, illustration of young woman sweating and in distress with a speech bubble reading: “What’s happening to me?” Text to the right reads: “2002, Neck pain, Back pain, Fatigue, Fever.” Middle panel, right panel, illustration of male doctor in a white coat. Speech bubble reads: “She had taken antibiotics and was better...until she had a baby.” Left panel, illustration of young woman taking two pills. Bottom panel, illustration of young woman, sweating and in distress, holding a baby with a speech bubble reading: “The chills and fevers are back, and the pain is even worse!” Text to the right reads: “2006.”

Seven panel cartoon illustration: panel 3.

Three panels. Top panel, illustration of silhouette a doctor next to the woman, who is hunched forward in pain. Speech bubble reads: “We’ve tested for infections...” Text to the right reads: “2007” Middle panel, illustration of silhouette another doctor next to the woman. Speech bubble reads: “autoimmune conditions...cancers...” Text to the right reads: “2008.” Bottom panel, illustration of silhouette yet another doctor next to the woman. Speech bubble reads: “but we just can’t find the culprit.” Text to the right reads: “2009.”

Seven panel cartoon illustration: panel 4.

Illustration of the male doctor in white coat looking through a magnifying glass. Text in upper right corner reads: “2017.” The panel background features a DNA strand, the body of a tapeworm, and other small creatures. The magnifying glass is focused on small creatures with text reading: “Bacteria.” Two speech bubbles read: “Her case was so perplexing that the National Institutes of Health got involved. That’s when they emailed me about a new infectious disease test my UCSF colleagues* and I had developed. *Including Charles Chiu, MD, PhD; Joe DeRisi, PhD, the Gordon Tomkins Professor; and Steve Miller, MD.”

Seven panel cartoon illustration: panel 5.

Same illustration of the male doctor in white coat looking through a magnifying glass. The magnifying glass is focused on more small creatures with text reading: “Parasites, Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi.” Two speech bubbles read: “Standard tests look for only one infection at a time, but our test searches for thousands. It decodes pieces of DNA from a patient’s spinal fluid and then looks for matches in a database of all known infections. It’s like using fingerprints to catch a criminal.”

Seven panel cartoon illustration: panel 6.

Illustration of hand holding magnifying glass on a panel with DNA strands and small creatures. The magnifying glass is focused on a tapeworm’s head. Text above the head reads: “We ran the test for the woman. Just days later we had a match. She had a tapeworm!”

Seven panel cartoon illustration: panel 7.

Illustration of the male doctor and the woman with a tear on her cheek, hugging her young son. Two speech bubbles read: “Luckily, there was a treatment. At long last, the end of her arduous journey was in sight.”

Cover of UCSF Magazine Winter 2020: Special Issue / The Future. Collage of futuristic image of gloved hands with high-tech parts.

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