Graduate Student Coordinates Community-Based Study on Legionella Bacteria

Portrait of Andy

Master of Health Science graduate student Andrew Nutting is coordinating a study on Legionella, a common bacteria that is often found in water systems and soil.

Though typically harmless, Legionella bacteria can be deadly when it causes Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia-like lung infection. The elderly and people with weakened immune systems are the most susceptible to the disease, yet there isn’t much research to show whether Legionella bacteria may be found in respiratory care devices.

That’s why Nutting and his research partner, respiratory care student Jennifer Hoolehan, are testing for the bacteria in medical devices such as ventilators, humidifiers and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines at long-term care facilities.

Their research project is a collaboration with Boise State University departments of community and environmental health, respiratory care, and the Bureau of Communicable Disease Prevention and Bureau of Laboratories in the Idaho Division of Public Health.

“Staff in the Bureau of Communicable Disease Prevention had been trying to do this study for a while, but they just didn’t have the manpower,” said Nutting.

Since the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories had set aside financial resources to support this research, the project has been cost-free for Boise State.

“It’s really been mutually beneficial,” Nutting said of the collaboration.

For Nutting, this research project is both an internship and the basis of his thesis research. His role in the project includes coordinating and communicating with the research partners and participating clinics, developing questionnaires and methodology, collecting the samples and data, and analyzing the results.

The researchers aren’t expecting to find Legionella bacteria in their samples of devices at long-term care facilities, but Nutting says this study is just the first step.

“The ultimate goal would be to go and sample devices that are within the community – people that are using CPAP devices in their homes. And maybe they’re not necessarily using distilled water all the time. Or maybe they’re not following a cleaning regimen.”

With the research methods and protocols that Nutting and Hoolehan have developed in place, this study can more easily expand into residential homes where the threat of Legionnaires’ disease is likely to be greater.

“Andy has done a tremendous job thus far on this project,” said Kirk Ketelson, a professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Health and Nutting’s thesis advisor. “His efforts will open the door for future collaboration between the Idaho Division of Public Health and students looking for real-world opportunities to perform research.”

The study will likely wrap in August and in the meantime, Nutting is already working on additional research projects – including wildfire smoke exposure in skilled nursing facilities. Looking ahead post-graduation, he is contemplating applying to a doctoral program in epidemiology or biostatistics. His ultimate goal is a career as a health scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nutting says he discovered his enjoyment of working with numbers early on in the Master of Health Science program in an applied statistics course.

“I think working with datasets is just a lot of fun,” he said.

Nutting will present the findings of the Legionella project at his thesis defense this October.