Dr. Peter J. Hotez focuses on the creepy crawly diseases that rarely make headlines but keep a billion of the world's people struggling to survive by sapping their vitality and brainpower.
This newest dean at Baylor College of Medicine brings with him the revered name of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, of which he is president, and its vaccine research laboratories that are searching for a way to prevent diseases like hookworm, snail fever, river blindness, Chagas disease and other parasitic infections. These diseases do not have the immediate "star power" of AIDS or malaria, but they have afflicted humanity since Biblical times. Hotez calls them "neglected tropical diseases or NTDs." He is pleased to hear the term on the tongues of politicians and celebrities and hopes it can become common parlance for the ordinary person.
Hotez is man of intense passions and energy. His desire to fight neglected tropical diseases began in boyhood, and he said, "I'm living my childhood dream."
That dream is the stuff of nightmares for many of the poorest of the world's inhabitants. These parasites invade the body, lodging in the intestines or other organs where they feast on their hosts' blood. The anemia they cause stunts youngsters and slows brain development, leaving them cognitively impaired. Pregnant women miscarry and adults are too weak to work when these microscopic monsters accomplish their gruesome tasks.
Hotez, who holds the Texas Children's Hospital Endowed Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, leads the effort to join the formidable scientific power of the Sabin Vaccine Institute with the already existing resources at Baylor, Texas Children's and elsewhere in the Texas Medical Center to coordinate an all-out onslaught against the neglected tropical diseases.
To that end, as founding dean, he will accept the first class of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in the fall of 2012 – a concrete realization of a vision he has had most of his professional life.
"I've always been impressed with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine," he said. "There is no stand-alone school of tropical medicine in the United States – until now."
Training other health professionals
The Baylor school will begin by offering a diploma in tropical medicine to people in the health care field – physicians, nurses, public health experts, dentists, pharmacists, among others.
"Not everyone can be certified in tropical medicine, but everyone should be able to take the diploma course," he said. "One thing I've learned about global health is that the needs are so pervasive that people of all kinds of expertise can make a difference."
"I want this school to make the people of Texas proud," said Hotez. "I want Houston taxi drivers to know about the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. I want the leadership of Texas, in terms of the state legislature and the office of the Governor, to take an interest in what we are doing, especially for tropical diseases that occur right here in Texas."
It's a formidable task, but that's nothing new for the tropical disease expert who has been interested in parasitic infections since his childhood in West Hartford, Connecticut, where he spent afternoons studying tiny organisms through a microscope his parents bought him. It began a lifelong passion for the diseases of the downtrodden of the world. Along the way, he has garnered support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carlos Slim Institute for Health, named for the Forbes-designated richest man based in Mexico, as well as the National Institutes of Health and European governments.
Drawn to the Texas Medical Center
The formidable assets of the Texas Medical Center drew Hotez to Houston, which he has visited frequently in his career. Here he hopes not only to teach but also to lead research and care in these diseases that affect not only those in the developing world but poor Texans as well.
"How do you have a tropical medicine practice in the United States?" he asked. The clear answer is Ben Taub General Hospital, where Baylor physicians and residents practice and its students learn.
"On any given day, you can find cysticercosis (caused by the pork tapeworm) or Chagas disease (caused by the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite) at Ben Taub or elsewhere in the Texas Medical Center," he said. Dr. Jose Serpa-Alvarez and Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn, both assistant professors of medicine – infectious diseases at BCM, will aid him in both the educational and patient care part of that effort.
New vaccine efforts
The research components promise to take his efforts to new heights by combining the vaccine development portion of the Sabin Vaccine Institute with others at BCM and in the Texas Medical Center.
"The move here gives us the opportunity to expand what we are doing and take on new vaccines," he said. "I hope to collaborate with people like the bioengineers at Rice, applying nanotechnology to the study of tropical diseases in the laboratory."
The Sabin Vaccine Laboratories located at Texas Children's Hospital come with a core of scientists skilled in vaccine development, he said. They include Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, who leads product development efforts and serve as associate dean of the new school; Dr. Bin Zhan, Dr. Kathryn Jones and Dr. Michael Heffernan, all of whom are developers of new vaccines.
Breadth of vaccine expertise
"It turns out that at Baylor College of Medicine and in the Texas Medical Center, you have as much vaccine development and testing as you do in any academic medical center in the United States. Combine what we are doing at the Feigin Center (of Texas Children's Hospital) with (Dr.) Wendy Keitel's work (in the Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation Unit), the work of Dr. Tom Kosten in substance abuse vaccines, and the development of cancer vaccines of Dr. Malcolm Brenner here and at (The University of Texas) MD Anderson Cancer Center, and you've got impressive strengths in vaccine development," said Hotez.
He is also joining with partners at the Texas A&M University Institute of Biosciences and Technology in a joint application to develop new vaccines in association with the Department of Defense's efforts in biodefense.
Possible world vaccine center
"With all these efforts, this part of Texas could become the world's center for vaccine development," said Hotez.
His efforts have given him a high profile in the past. At the height of the autism-vaccine controversy, he was adamant about the safety and need for vaccines, even though he is the father of a child with autism. Despite the criticism, he felt he had a duty to talk about the safety of vaccines and their value in keeping people healthy.
"We've come a long way in terms of getting these diseases on the global health radar screen," he said. "Global health experts use the term 'NTDs.' (U.S. Secretary of State) Hilary Clinton has spoken about neglected tropical diseases, while both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have prioritized these conditions."
He wants to keep it front and center, and that keeps him running.