The National School of Tropical Medicine was founded by Dr. Peter Hotez in 2011 as part of Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, TX. The goals of the school are to promote and provide education, healthcare, research and public policy for diseases that affect over one billion people worldwide. These diseases are collectively referred to as neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs.
Why neglected? Most people are not aware of these diseases because they typically affect only the poorest people among us. According to Dr. Hotez, not only do NTDs disproportionately affect the poor, they are also a cause of poverty. This is because most of these conditions are chronic, or cause lasting debilitating effects that prevent people from being able to learn, work, and make a better life.
The group of dedicated scientists and physicians at the National School of Tropical Medicine (NSTM) are committed to ensuring that these diseases do not remain neglected. One of the ways they are doing this is through education. Each summer a select group of pre-health students from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, are invited to BCM in Houston for a two week Tropical Medicine Summer Institute. The students who are chosen are immersed in tropical medicine, medical research, public health, NTDs, and even get hands-on lab experience.
On April 3, 2014, I joined a group of BU undergraduate students who were perspective candidates for this summer program. They met with several of the faculty at NSTM who explained how their roles in research and medicine were contributing to the goals of the school.
Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn described her role as a physician and spoke with the students about the patients she treats at the Tropical Medicine Clinic. Surprisingly, patients with NTDs are not uncommon at the clinic, located in Houston, Texas. The patients who make it to the clinic may be the lucky ones. Dr. Hotez and his group suspect that many cases of NTDs in the U.S. go undiagnosed because physicians do not recognize them or are not aware of their presence in the U.S.
Dr. Oluwatoyin Ajibola Asojo, a structural biologist and X-ray crystallographer, shared her research passion with the BU students. She described how she deciphers the molecular structure of proteins isolated from NTD pathogens. These proteins are potential candidates for drug and vaccine targets. In a database of almost 100,000 structures there are astonishingly few from NTD pathogens, making Dr. Asojo’s work critical to understanding the biology of these pathogens and how to prevent them from causing disease.
After hearing about how Dr. Asojo’s work can contribute to vaccine and drug development, the students were given a tour of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development laboratories. There they were able to learn more about the research by talking with a scientist who was developing the vaccines.
The BU students also met with Dr. Kristy Murray, who told them about her research on viruses including West Nile virus, Dengue virus, and Chikungunya virus. These viruses all have one thing in common – they are spread via mosquito bites and their prevalence in the U.S. seems to be on the rise. Dr. Murray is focused on making sure physicians can recognize these diseases, understanding why they are spreading, and how to prevent their spread. She is also interested in learning the pathology of these viruses (or how they make patients sick at the molecular level).
In addition, Dr. Murray also studies a parasitic infection called Chagas disease. Chagas is spread through the bite of a “kissing bug” and can cause severe heart disease in humans. The BU undergraduates got to see the thesis work of an M.D./Ph.D. student, Meagan Barry, who is helping to develop a therapeutic vaccine to treat patients with Chagas disease.
Dr. George Parkerson then spoke to the students about global health issues. He explained that compared to people who live in more affluent countries, children in Angola are 73 times more likely to die within the first few years of life, and women in Sub-Saharan Africa are 100 times more likely to die as a result of childbirth. There are many reasons for this, which include malnutrition, access to clean water, access to education and healthcare, infrastructure, supplies of medication, and military and political issues, just to name a few. He described programs that medical students at Baylor College of Medicine can take advantage of to help people living in such circumstances.
Situations such as malnutrition, poor infrastructure, and issues of access also exist in the U.S. and other wealthy countries. But they only affect the poorest living among us, who also suffer from NTDs. Dr. Hotez urges the students not to think of global health in terms of developing and developed countries, but rather to consider his concept of “blue marble health”. This view of global health introduces the notion that diseases affecting the poor in one country also affect the poor in another country, no matter the wealth of the nation. The only way to end the cycle of disease and poverty is to conquer them everywhere. At the National School of Tropical Medicine they are starting with the diseases that are the most common afflictions of the world’s population and have been for millennia.
The most surprising and uplifting part of this experience was the reaction of the students as they absorbed the information and asked insightful questions. For some, they may have found their future niche in medicine. Dr. Hotez hopes that future collaboration between Baylor University in Waco and the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston will continue to foster such passion in our future physicians and scientists.