Tropical Medicine program thriving at BCM

Sept. 1, 2012

When Dr. Peter Hotez moved to Houston from Washington, D.C., one year ago to establish the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, his goal was clear: create a school committed to training health care professionals to tackle neglected tropical diseases that affect the world's poor, including those who live in poverty in the state of Texas. In the past year, he and his team have made great strides in accomplishing this goal.

Educational

Training health care professionals to recognize and treat neglected tropical diseases was one of the biggest goals of the school. "We wanted to establish a high-quality educational program in tropical diseases modeled after the excellent didactic programs offered for many years in the United Kingdom by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine," said Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at BCM.

The Diploma in Tropical Medicine curriculum, led by Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn, director of medical education, was approved within both the medical school and graduate school curricula at BCM, and the inaugural class began training this summer. The eight-week course is divided into four, two-week modules to allow students to customize their training. The first session was open to physicians and upper-level medical students in the Texas Medical Center. Recruitment for the spring semester, which begins in January, is currently under way.

Clinical

The clinical work in neglected tropical diseases had two major milestones this year – the opening of a Tropical Medicine Clinic in collaboration with Harris County Hospital District at Ben Taub General Hospital and the opening of the Travel Medicine Clinic at the Baylor Clinic.

"There is a hidden burden of tropical diseases right here in Texas, including high rates of infections such as Chagas disease, cysticercosis, leishmaniasis and other neglected tropical diseases. We now have a centralized location to see these patients within Harris County at Ben Taub," said Hotez.

"Since these are debilitating diseases, they impact people's daily life," said Woc-Colburn. "When patients are treated for these diseases early on, it empowers and enables them to continue working and support themselves." '

Research

Since coming to Houston, researchers have secured $10.5 million in new grants, which includes research for vaccines to combat Chagas disease and leishmaniasis and the development of a SARS vaccine. These grants are based in the department of pediatrics, which has established a new section of Pediatric Tropical Medicine in association with the new Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children's Hospital to house the Center for Vaccine Development specifically dedicated to neglected infections. Today Sabin-TCH is the only product development partnership for neglected diseases products embedded in an academic health center.

"We are excited about the opportunities we have to expand our vaccine development programs. Our partnership with Baylor College of Medicine, Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children's Hospital is instrumental and provides us with the ideal environment to be leaders in this field," said Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine.

Research to develop both preventive and therapeutic vaccines for neglected tropical diseases continues with the hopes of manufacturing vaccines for clinical trials in the next few years.

In parallel, a new NIH supported program in zoonotic and vector-borne diseases, such as dengue and West Nile, has been launched with the recruitment of Drs. Kristy Murray and Rebecca Rico-Hesse. New studies are under way to fully explore the extent of dengue and West Nile virus transmission globally and in Texas, as well as a new unit for structural biology of neglected disease macromolecules led by Dr. Olutoyin Asojo.

Other milestones

If progress in these three key areas wasn't enough, Hotez and his team were also able to secure memorandums-of-understanding with both Texas Tech University and the University of Yucatan in Merida, Mexico, to work together towards understanding and treating neglected tropical diseases.

The school was also able to host the first Texas symposium on neglected tropical diseases and secure funds for a TMC-wide Vaccine Biotechnology Conference to be held later this year.

"We're excited about these accomplishments and look forward to reaching out to all of the institutions of the Texas Medical Center in order to launch an all-out assault on the neglected tropical diseases – the diseases of poverty. The TMC is the greatest medical center in the world, and I feel so privileged to be able to lead a tropical disease initiative here," said Hotez.