UTEP Professor Develops Vaccine for "Kissing Bugs," or Chagas Disease

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 - 1:43pm

EL PASO — University officials Tuesday announced Igor Almeida, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso's Border Biomedical Research Center, has developed a fully protective vaccine for Chagas disease. Chagas is a chronic infection that affects 8 million people worldwide and is the leading parasitic killer in the Americas.

The illness is transmitted to humans through insects known as "kissing bugs" that carry a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, or T. cruzi. The transmission can also occur through a blood transfusion, organ transplant, tainted foods and juices, or the parasite can be present at birth.
The infection is considered a major public health issue in Latin America and is an emerging disease in the United States and Europe, they said.

"Chagas has become a world disease," Almeida said. "Today, people who have it are everywhere - the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia."

Almeida identified a specific sugar in the parasite known as alpha-galactose (alpha-Gal) that is foreign to the human body and causes the immune system to react and produce anti-alpha-Gal antibodies against it - causing death to the parasite.

Using this knowledge, he and postdoctoral researcher Alexandre Marques, Ph.D., created a vaccine that included alpha-Gal and administered it to mice. After being infected with high levels of T. cruzi, the mice had a 100 percent survival rate and showed high levels of anti-alpha-Gal antibodies that could easily kill the parasite.

Almeida is awaiting funding to continue testing the new vaccine, and hopefully get a pharmaceutical or biotech company interested in producing it on a larger scale.

"It is not every day that a person can change the medical textbooks so completely," said Stephen Aley, Ph.D., interim dean of UTEP's College of Science. "Because of the research of Dr. Igor Almeida, a frequently fatal disease of the Americas has become totally preventable. He is an outstanding example of how UTEP researchers impact millions of at-risk people in this region and throughout central and South America."

Almeida has been working on Chagas disease research since 1990.
In 1997, he co-invented the only test in the world that could both diagnose and follow up the treatment of Chagas disease. Today, his test is being used in a $3 million project funded by the Wellcome Trust to see if new and existing drugs against the parasite can reliably treat the disease.

Originally from Brazil, Almeida received a pharmacy degree from The State University of Paraiba and his master's and Doctor of Science degrees from the Federal University of Sao Paulo. He completed his postdoctoral research at the Division of Molecular Parasitology and Biological Chemistry at the University of Dundee in Scotland. He joined the UTEP biological sciences and BBRC faculty in 2004.

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