Penguins are adorable. Their infections are a lot less cute. Fortunately, scientists may have figured out how to safely knock out at least one deadly fungal disease. The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine
Fungi in the genus Aspergillus
have all kinds of strange talents
. They turn up in the pantry as black mold—and in the refrigerator, as key ingredients in soy sauce and lemon-flavored drinks. Some enzymes
derived from these fungi can help people with celiac disease digest gluten. But others can also make people and other animals, including penguins, very, very sick.
Avian aspergillosis can lead to chronic and acute respiratory infections. The disease strikes wild and captive birds all over the world, but is especially common among African penguins in zoos, refuges, research centers, and aquaria. For a while, those penguins were treated with a medication called vitraconazole. Then the fungus evolved a resistance
There's another option: a second drug called voriconazole, which has been used successfully to cure aspergillosis in other birds. But penguins aren't other birds. They've got their own peculiar bodies and metabolisms. A dose that's good for the goose may be too much for the penguin.
To determine how much voriconazole a penguin should take, researchers enlisted 18 penguins at a New Jersey aquarium in two separate trials. They tried the birds on various dosing schedules and quantities, then tested their blood plasma to see how their bodies absorbed the drug.
The scientists then took all that information and fed it into a computer model, which allowed them to calculate how quickly and efficiently the average African penguin could metabolize the medication. They arrived at a concentration of 5 milligrams per kilogram of penguin body weight, once a day.
Lead author Katharine Stott is an expert in translational medicine
at the University of Liverpool. "Although this project was a somewhat unusual one for our group," she said
in a statement, "the problem it presents is common: how can we better understand dosing strategies to optimize the use of antimicrobial agents
Stott noted that her group's methods could carry over into other small patients as well: "The project also dealt with an issue commonly faced when trying to design pediatric treatment regimens in that dosing requirements are not always proportionally related to patient size."