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Baylor College of Medicine News

BCM's National School of Tropical Medicine hits the ground running

The newly established National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, under the leadership of world renowned neglected diseases expert Dr. Peter J. Hotez, is making great strides on the education, research and clinical fronts.

The school is one of four at BCM, joining the medical school, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the School of Allied Health Sciences.

Solving pressing issues

Established earlier this year, the school is the first national school of tropical medicine in the United States and is committed to solving the world's most pressing tropical disease issues.

"Tropical diseases are the most common infections of the world's poor," said Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at BCM. "If you go into a disease-endemic country, what you'll find is almost all of the bottom billion – the 1.4 billion people that live below the World Bank poverty figure of $1.25 a day, essentially all of the world's people that live on no money – are affected by one or more neglected tropical diseases."

"The unique feature about them is that they not only occur in the setting of poverty, but they actually cause poverty because of their adverse impact on child growth and intelligence, their adverse impact on pregnancy and their adverse impact on work and productivity," he said.

Unique training opportunities

The National School of Tropical Medicine offers unique training opportunities for health care professionals interested in studying and treating neglected tropical diseases.

"Currently, there are limited opportunities for training in tropical diseases in the United States," said Hotez. "We think there's a great opportunity to provide the first comprehensive tropical medicine disease educational experience."

The school will capitalize on the scientific horsepower of the Texas Medical Center, with an emphasis on collaborations among all medical institutions as well as Rice University, said Hotez.

"Where better to establish a tropical medicine school than this massive medical city where there's all sorts of expertise available that we can tap and apply to solving global health problems?" said Hotez.

Education

Through a Diploma in Tropical Medicine, health care professionals can receive unprecedented training and clinical experiences that will prepare them to recognize and address tropical diseases in their practices. The diploma will require three months of international experience and will enroll its first class of physicians and upper level medical students in the summer of 2012.

"Along with the program for physicians, we want to open additional diploma programs to nurses, physician assistants, dentists, pharmacists and any type of health care provider to augment their training on these tropical diseases," said Hotez. "One of the sad things we've found is that many patients with tropical diseases here in the United States and elsewhere go undiagnosed because the health care providers are not trained to think about these diseases."

The school also will offer certificates and a master's program in translational biotechnology and vaccine development, a Ph.D. program in global health technologies and tropical medicine.

Research

Most of the drugs, vaccines and diagnostics that are currently used to treat neglected tropical diseases were invented more than 50 years ago, according to Hotez. Many of the medications work poorly. The school will allow researchers and students to learn how to design new, better and safer drugs for these conditions.

"We can provide training on how to make the next generation of products for neglected tropical diseases which would include not only vaccines, but also potential new drugs and new diagnostics," said Hotez.

The establishment of the school coincides with the relocation of the product development partnership of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, where Hotez serves as president. Sabin is a nonprofit organization that uses industry practices to make drugs, vaccines and diagnostics that do not generate profit because the diseases only affect the world's poor who live on no money. The Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development is located in the Feigin Center at Texas Children's.

Currently, four vaccines are being developed for neglected tropical diseases – a vaccine for human hookworm infection - a disease of 600 million people; a vaccine for schistosomiasis – a disease of 400 million people; a vaccine for Chagas disease – an important cause of heart disease in Latin America; and a vaccine for leishmaniasis – a parasitic disease transmitted by the sandfly.

Clinical

The school enables the establishment of two clinics devoted to tropical diseases. A tropical medicine clinic at Harris County Hospital District's Ben Taub General Hospital is already seeing patients in the Houston area who are affected by diseases such as Chagas, which affects an estimated 267,000 Texans, said Hotez. Other tropical diseases physicians expect to see in this clinic include neurocysticercosis, toxocariasis infection and dengue. Through this clinic, patients will have the opportunity to get these infections diagnosed and treated.

Because of Houston's role as an international city, thousands of people travel to and from different parts of the world daily. These travelers must prepare for their trips with vaccinations and medications. For these patients, a new travel medicine clinic where they can consult with physicians before and after travelling is planned.