The discovery is not considered a health threat, but instead it could provide new insight into the possible spread of infectious diseases in the future.
As director of the Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center at UCSF, Dr. Charles Chiu tracks viruses from around the world. A little more than a year ago, he was called in when an unknown disease was devastating a monkey colony at the primate research center at UC Davis.
"It spread rapidly in a month. A third of the monkeys fell ill," Chiu said. "Among them, more than 83 percent of them died from the illness."
Using advanced technology, including DNA analysis, Chiu's team identified the culprit as a previously-unknown adenovirus.
Adenoviruses are common in both humans and monkeys, causing a variety of diseases ranging from colds to the flu, but until now, scientists believed animal and human strains were distinct and separate.
Several months after the outbreak, Chiu's team discovered that a researcher at the primate center had fallen ill at the same time as the monkeys. Searching for a possible link, they ran tests on the researcher's blood.
"We found that this researcher...had developed antibodies specifically to this adenovirus," Chiu said. "What that suggested to us is that the researcher had been infected as had the monkeys."
Additional tests suggested a family member may also have become ill, although the case is considered an isolated incident. Chiu believes the discovery could provide valuable insight into the behavior of viruses and the potential for future outbreaks.
"I think that we are going to see ongoing development of these emerging viruses that probably jump from animals to humans," said Chiu.
Both patients recovered from their illnesses, which included an upper-respiratory infection as well as chills and fever. Neither required medical attention, although the symptoms lasted for several weeks.
It's still not clear if the monkey passed it on to the researcher or the other way around.