The little-known parasite that causes Chagas disease is a huge problem across Latin America, infecting five times as many people as HIV. Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston are working on a therapeutic vaccine.
Chagas disease is caused by a parasite that enters the blood stream and sometimes lives quietly for decades. But up to 30 percent of people will later develop complications, such as heart disease. The microscopic parasite can create little nests inside the cells of the heart muscle, causing cardiac problems and even death, according to Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine.
“This is a disease that has been around a long time, but it’s mostly affecting people living in poverty,” Hotez said. “So we really haven’t paid much attention to the enormity of the problem.”
Poor people tend to be affected because it’s transmitted by the kissing bug, an insect that hides in the cracks and crevices of poor-quality houses in tropical climates.
On Wednesday, the Carlos Slim Foundation in Mexico announced a $2.6 million grant to scientists at Baylor who are working on a therapeutic vaccine for Chagas.
Although a therapeutic vaccine won’t stop someone from getting the parasite, it could slow down the damage to the heart.
The U.S. has an estimated 300,000 cases of Chagas, according to the CDC. Texas is a hot spot, Hotez added.
“It’s not unique to people, we’re seeing it for instance in the dogs in Texas,” Hotez said. “One in ten dogs has Chagasic heart disease. We hear the story every time of people go hunting with their bird dogs and the bird dogs drop dead while running.”
Baylor will share its research findings and technology with two universities in Mexico, and future clinical trials will be conducted there.
“What is important is these types of interventions have to reach the people that need it,” said Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, deputy director of the vaccine center and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.
“It’s going to be probably unlikely that the United States will be the sole producer, or distributor, or even developer of such therapeutic vaccine. So it’s very important that you transfer the know-how and the technology to organizations that will be really able to advance it and take it on.”