A Partnership to Fight “Other” Diseases

October 7, 2019
The following story appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of Baylor Magazine. Click here for the complete article.

Dr. Peter Hotez recognized a problem, a lack of recognition problem.

When the United Nations launched a series of health-related development goals in conjunction with the turn of the calendar in the year 2000, Hotez noticed that the diseases he dedicated his life to fighting — diseases that prey on the world’s most vulnerable — were lumped together and branded as “other diseases.”

“I realized then,” Hotez says, “that if we’re ever going to really solve these problems, we’re going to have to stop calling them ‘other diseases’ and brand them together as a group that’s every bit as important as HIV and AIDS or anything else.”

Nearly two decades later, these “other” diseases are known as neglected tropical diseases. Baylor University students and faculty are willing partners in the fight against the neglected tropical diseases. They are united by a shared mission, raising up a new generation of health leaders to serve, heal and render the word “neglected” as no longer accurate.

The growing academic partnership between Baylor University and the Baylor College of Medicine’s (BCM) National School of Tropical Medicine (NSTM) takes on multiple forms. For BU students, it is most readily experienced through a two-week summer immersion with the world’s top tropical disease experts inside lecture rooms and labs at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. The NSTM Summer Institute Program began in 2014 and has since welcomed about 20 to 25 students each summer to participate in an intensive program designed to introduce them to the opportunities and needs around them.

Neglected tropical diseases consist of 17 common chronic parasitic and infectious diseases — maladies like Chagas disease, hookworm, Zika and Ebola. They are most acutely felt in areas where residents are least able to receive treatment. More than 1.4 billion people live below the World Bank’s poverty level of $1.25 in U.S. currency per day. Nearly all of them, collectively known as the “bottom billion,” suffer from at least one of the 17 diseases. The name “tropical disease” belies the fact that they can be found anywhere, including in the United States. Nearly 20 million Americans live in impoverished conditions, and nearly 12 million of them suffer from these diseases.

Hotez is NSTM dean, Baylor College of Medicine professor, University Professor at Baylor University, and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. He is a leading international expert and activist on topics of tropical disease and vaccine development. Hotez says the causes for the relationship between poverty and these diseases are many.

“These diseases are first and foremost the diseases of extreme poverty,” Hotez says. “They’re also a stealth cause of poverty. Wherever you see extreme poverty, that’s where you see them.”
For Baylor University and Baylor College of Medicine, the roots of the Institute partnership extend beyond a shared name more deeply into a shared sense of mission. In the medical field, tropical medicine is far from the easiest path. The quest to cure and the desire to learn often lead tropical medicine professionals into places where sanitation, pollution and disease are constant concerns.

Tropical medicine, likewise, remains far from the most lucrative medical career path. Medical advances driven and vaccines created by tropical medicine professionals won’t be featured on Super Bowl commercials, and the people who benefit from them can’t pay for them. The field calls for people whose compassion overrides their desire for ease, and Baylor University is a place where such young people exist.

Hotez and his team joined Baylor College of Medicine to form the NSTM as the only school in North America whose sole focus is the understanding and eradication of tropical disease. They were soon thereafter introduced to Baylor University students whose enthusiasm for the work caught their attention.

“After we came to Houston in 2011, we began getting queries from Baylor University students in Waco because so many of them go abroad as a part of Christian mission trips,” Hotez says. “They were going to various countries around the world but recognized they wanted more of that framework around global health to understand everything that they’re seeing. As I met them, I was so impressed with the quality of these Baylor University undergraduates. They’re so enthusiastic and overwhelmingly kind.”

Service and Expertise

Baylor University is not the only university using resources to address tropical disease, but it stands out because of the way it melds the service component with expertise in medical training.

It is an investment that draws students, professors and researchers, including Dr. Kelli Barr, associate professor in Baylor’s biology department. Barr, a virologist, tropical disease biologist, Rising Star researcher and member of Baylor’s Tropical Disease Biology group, joined Baylor’s faculty last year.

“What I’ve seen is a university investing a great deal in this area, and specifically in students,” Barr says. “We’re bringing in new faculty, and we’re partnering with Baylor College of Medicine, but we’re also investing in research, missions and the undergraduate electives we teach. The electives here are above and beyond any other university I’ve been to. The expense and preparation put into these courses elevates courses like our clinical microbiology course for undergraduates above the same material students learn in veterinary school in other universities. And the students here are different. They want to help people.”

Barr works alongside Tamar Carter, assistant professor of tropical disease biology; Jason Pitts, assistant professor of biology; and Cheolho Sim, associate professor of biology in Baylor’s tropical disease biology group. Each uses his or her discipline in concert with that of colleagues in research and scholarship that advances knowledge in the field. As they collaborate with one another, they also grow a strong working relationship with NSTM faculty, many of whom travel to Waco regularly to visit with students and faculty. Both sides have found the partnership with NSTM holistically benefits their work, as well as the students they teach.

Sim has collaborated with NSTM faculty to research a transmission blocking vaccine for Brugia, a parasite that causes tropical disease like lymphatic filariases.

“In our department’s experience, today’s students arrive at Baylor with the drive to identify careers of service and positively impact the world,” Sim says. “Baylor’s Department of Biology, as well as the National School of Tropical Medicine, enjoy rich histories of accomplishment in global health. Therefore, collaboratively, we’re uniquely poised to address this need. Further plans for collaboration, in addition to the summer institute program, will advance Baylor’s ambition to become an R1/Tier 1 institution and also uphold its Christian value of service to the weak and afflicted.”

Such plans include a joint Bachelor of Science/Master of Science degree at Baylor and NSTM in biology of global health, expansion of the Institute to grow fourfold to 100 students, and an increased partnership between Baylor University and the Baylor College of Medicine that would elevate the breadth of work taking place at both institutions.
“I can’t tell you how many trips I’ve made to Waco and come back excited,” Hotez says. “What I would like to see is how the National School of Tropical Medicine becomes better integrated into a joint partnership with Baylor University and the Texas Children’s Hospital. There are great advantages to partnering with Baylor. We’re an academic health center, very much the biomedical model. We don’t have economists here, political scientists or humanities scholars. It provides a partnership to enrich this whole approach to poverty-related diseases from a holistic point of view.”

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