A scientific discovery falls out of this epidemiologist's nose

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Marco Werman: So I heard one end of a pretty weird phone conversation earlier today. It started with one of our producers saying this, ‘Professor Goldberg, congratulations on your nose tick.’ Yeah, nose tick. Like that needs congratulating. But on the other end of the line was Tony Goldberg, he’s a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin and studies how some diseases can make the jump from primates to humans. Professor Goldberg joins me now from Madison. Professor, whose nose was this where the tick was found? Professor Goldberg: Well, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, it was my own nose. Werman: How big a deal is this nose tick that you found? Goldberg: That’s a good question. So, in terms of the size of the tick itself, not a very big deal because it was about the size of a pencil eraser. But, scientifically I think it has implications that go beyond the individual tick that was up my right nostril. Werman: All right. So, I want to know what we can learn from this tick. First of all, how do we think it arrived in your nose? Where did it come from? Goldberg: Geographically it came from Africa. So, I do research on zoonotic diseases, diseases that are transmitted between animals and people. And that work takes me to equatorial Africa and specifically to Uganda. To a wonderful park in the Western part of the country called Kibale National Park which is known for its biodiversity. And in the course of my research I spend quite a bit of time in the forest where primates live, uh, non-human primates, monkeys and chimpanzees and that’s where I acquired this tick. I didn’t realize I had it until after I had returned to the United States and was sitting in my lab and that’s when I noticed a slight pain in my right nostril and I’d experienced that type of pain before, so I had a pretty good idea of what it was. And I, uh, made use of a mirror, a flashlight and a forceps to remove it. I was fortunate to be able to grasp it firmly by the mouth parts and pull. And I got the tick in its entirety out of my nose, sparing most of the surrounding nose hairs. Werman: Congratulations on that as well. Um. Goldberg: Thank you. It was a feat of manual dexterity, let me tell you. Werman: And this picture we have at PRI.org shows this thing all translucent belly, nice and bloated just like the big momma ticks we all remember from our childhoods. What for you is the important thing about having this tick? What can we learn from this? Goldberg: In doing DNA analysis of this tick, we realized that its DNA sequences do not exist in any current databases. It may be a known species that’s never been sequenced genetically or it may be a new species. Either way though, I think the cool thing about this tick from my perspective is how it makes its living in nature. Probably, what these ticks are, are chimp ticks. And this makes perfect sense because chimps are crazy about grooming. So chimps groom each other fastidiously. So, if you’re a tick on a chimp you’re at high risk of being groomed off, unless you can find a place to hide. So, what better place than deep inside the nose because even though chimps pick their noses, they don’t pick each other’s noses. So, if you can get to the nose, you’re likely safe. So, our working hypothesis here is that these are chimp nose ticks that occasionally get onto people and as unpleasant as it sounds, crawl up your body and across your face to get into your nose on purpose. Werman: Can I ask you what would have happened to you, to a chimp, if this tick crawls up your nose and you don’t get it out? I mean, we’re freaked out by lyme disease, uh, spread by ticks here in the Northeast. Is there anything that you think might be associated with this tick you found in your nose from Uganda? Goldberg: Well, we don’t have any evidence that this particular tick had any diseases in it. I feel fine, I have a slightly elevated craving for bananas, but other than that, everything is normal. Um, but we do know that this genus of tick, Amblyomma, does carry some nasty diseases, some bacterial, rickettsial and viral diseases elsewhere in Africa and in other parts of the world. So, it’s possible this tick could be a vector for diseases and that’s one of the other interesting things about this finding. We’re still learning about the different pathways that diseases can use to move between wildlife and people. And this nose tick is a slightly amusing and particularly gross example of how diseases move in nature. It falls under the idea of ecology of infectious diseases. So we’re still learning about the ecological pathways and this is one. Werman: Professor Tony Goldberg, Veterinary Epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin, congratulations for real and thank you so much for speaking with us. Goldberg: You’re very welcome.