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Wednesday, Nov 22, 2017

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A delegation of OHIO faculty, staff and students took part in the grand opening of Center for Research on Health in Latin America (CISeAL), one of the most advanced and prestigious research facilities in Latin America.

A delegation of OHIO faculty, staff and students took part in the grand opening of Center for Research on Health in Latin America (CISeAL), one of the most advanced and prestigious research facilities in Latin America.

Photo courtesy of: Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine/Rich-Joseph Facun

Since its inception, more than 200 students have traveled to Ecuador through the Healthy Living Initiative to work with community members to improve living conditions for underserved populations in the region.

Since its inception, more than 200 students have traveled to Ecuador through the Healthy Living Initiative to work with community members to improve living conditions for underserved populations in the region.

Photo courtesy of: Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine/Rich-Joseph Facun

While visiting Ecuador’s Loja Province, the OHIO delegation witnessed the inauguration of three Chagas-free homes and a new potable water system, which offers clean water for 35 homes.

While visiting Ecuador’s Loja Province, the OHIO delegation witnessed the inauguration of three Chagas-free homes and a new potable water system, which offers clean water for 35 homes.

Photo courtesy of: Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine/Rich-Joseph Facun

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Delegation’s trip to Ecuador includes grand opening of research facility, visit to Healthy Living Initiative communities


What began in 2000 as a small laboratory and community-based research project in Ecuador to mitigate Chagas disease has now transformed to include a state-of-the-art research center. 

The Center for Research on Health in Latin America (CISeAL) at Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE) is primed to make a difference around the world, tackling life-threatening infectious and chronic diseases and seeking new discoveries and innovation. This is all because of one global vision carried out through a truly impactful partnership between Ohio University and PUCE, led by Professor Mario Grijalva of the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. Grijalva also directs the Infectious and Tropical Disease Institute (ITDI) at the Heritage College and the new CISeAL in Ecuador.

What many do not realize about Chagas disease is that this little invasive bug transmits a parasite that painstakingly kills its victims over 10 to 20 years by causing long-term heart and other chronic diseases as its action slowly destructs the muscle and cell structure surrounding the nervous, cardiac and digestive systems. Many who die do not even realize it was Chagas. That is the travesty of Chagas, and it kills thousands every year, mainly in Mexico, Central America and South America. Chagas research led by Grijalva was a collaboration of his colleagues at OHIO and PUCE and scores of students and members of Chagas-affected communities. It is this collaborative research on Chagas that is the foundation of the Healthy Living Initiative that led to the creation of the CISeAL.

A senior delegation from OHIO colleges of arts and sciences, communication, health sciences and professions, graduate studies, international studies and osteopathic medicine – including the deans, the chair of biomedical sciences, director of the Office of Global Opportunities, executive director of the Diabetes Institute, and more than 15 faculty, staff and students – were in Ecuador in June to take part in the grand opening of the CISeAL. This 100,000-square-foot, six-story, level 2 and 3 biohazard research facility, which officially opened on Tuesday, June 14, in Nayon, can accommodate 22 permanent research groups and support personnel, as well as visiting researchers and students.

“It has been our privilege to collaborate with the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador and the communities of the Loja Province of Ecuador dating back to 2000, when the idea for this research center was originally born,” OHIO President Roderick J. McDavis said.

During the opening ceremonies, attended by more than 300 guests and dignitaries, PUCE’s awe-inspiring new CISeAL was recognized as one of the most advanced and prestigious facilities in the region with the potential to spearhead world-class research on infectious and chronic diseases. Joe Shields, vice president for research and creative activity and dean of the Graduate College, spoke for OHIO during the opening ceremonies, saying he was proud to be a part of the historic event.

“The center is a state-of-the-art facility that will enable forefront research addressing infectious and chronic disease of interest to Ecuador, but impacting people on a global scale,” Shields said. “OHIO students and faculty have already developed very successful collaborations with researchers at PUCE, and the new facility will make it possible to take this work to a new level.”

The PUCE research center was developed through its partnership with OHIO and in particular its ITDI and the Global Health Initiative.

“The opening of the new facility is the culmination of 15 years of work and a milestone in a long-term project to create biomedical research capacity in Latin America,” Grijalva said. “Although I feel a sense of satisfaction with the opening of CISeAL, there is also a sense of responsibility for what’s to come as we learn how to best use the new facility to conduct research that fills knowledge gaps and leads to the creation of programs that improve the quality of life and well-being of people in Latin America and around the world.”

Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine Executive Dean Kenneth Johnson was enthusiastic about everything that has been accomplished so far, as well as the potential for the work that can be done in the future.

“I’m incredibly proud of the inspiring work of Dr. Grijalva and the transdisciplinary and interinstitutional team he leads, as they bring together educators, researchers, students and community groups to find ways to address health problems that threaten underserved populations,” Johnson said. “Their work is done through a deep commitment from the heart to make a difference for those who need it most. It goes beyond a transformational educational opportunity to one that changes all involved – the students, faculty, staff and most importantly the communities.”

Randy Leite, dean of the College of Health Sciences and Professions, said the new research center will lead to many new research collaborations for OHIO faculty and students.

“The new center will provide a base of operations for researchers from around the world to explore diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, Chagas disease and Zika in ways that will improve both the treatment and the quality of life for those who suffer from them,” Leite said. The new research center will also investigate diseases related to obesity and diabetes, and will provide new opportunities for the Diabetes Institute at OHIO.

What was equally special about this visit was that the opening of the research center was planned around a series of other major events, enabling all involved to take advantage of this unique opportunity of being together in Ecuador and witnessing the historical context upon which CISeAl was founded. PUCE held a major international conference on infectious and chronic diseases in which OHIO faculty, including Shields, contributed.  

Two days were devoted to a series of high-level meetings of the OHIO delegation with the PUCE Rector, Fernando Ponce Leon, SJ, as well as PUCE deans and directors, to further discuss opportunities to leverage more than 15 years of collaboration and to explore new ways to support the research center’s development. For example, Scripps College of Communication Dean Scott Titsworth talked with PUCE officials about the potential for OHIO faculty and students to travel to Ecuador to lead workshops on topics such as data visualization and macro photography and to visit the Yasuni Research Facility in the Amazon. Titsworth explained that he was very impressed with the interdisciplinary vision of all involved and feels strongly that the Scripps College of Communication can become an even more active partner in these efforts.

Also during the trip to Ecuador, the delegation held its first OHIO alumni and friends event in the region.

“We were thrilled with the turnout,” said Lorna Jean Edmonds, vice provost for global affairs and international studies. Thanks to the hard work of key alumni in Ecuador and the magic of social media, more than 65 people attended. Also attending were the U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, Todd Chapman, his wife, Janetta, and other colleagues from the embassy. 

“It was a memorable evening,” Edmonds said. 

At the end of the week, the OHIO and PUCE delegation, including Rector Fernando Ponce Leon, SJ, traveled to Ecuador’s Loja Province to visit several rural communities.

Under the auspices of the Healthy Living Initiative led by Grijalva and his colleagues at OHIO and PUCE, more than 200 students have traveled to Ecuador to share experiences with community members and work together to improve the living conditions in these communities. Mitigating Chagas-disease affected homes, promoting women’s entrepreneurship and building a new water treatment facility have been among the major initiatives undertaken. The culmination of years of collaboration and research were celebrated with the inauguration of three Chagas-free homes and the new potable water system, which offers clean water for 35 homes.

“Through the Healthy Living Initiative, OHIO faculty and students have had a unique opportunity to work with community members to improve the quality of life for the many underserved populations in Ecuador – people who face similar hardships that people in rural Appalachia and other underserved areas of America face,” Leite said.

Shields agreed, adding that strong cooperation by researchers and health professionals is needed to confront current global health issues.

“The Center and community programs that OHIO is involved in provide a means to work across the full continuum of translational research to benefit health and wellness – from bench to bedside to community and populations,” Shields said.

The Athens Rotary Club has provided support for the Healthy Living Initiative water projects in the Loja Province, and Rotary Club member and OHIO Avionics Engineering Center Associate Director Emeritus David Diggle traveled with the OHIO delegation to take part in the inauguration celebrations.

While OHIO’s main focus in Ecuador has been in healthcare-related areas, the partnership with PUCE has the potential to also extend to other academic programs. Edmonds explained that the visit to Ecuador and the meetings with PUCE faculty and staff created opportunities for academic programs all across OHIO to collaborate with PUCE to provide new educational, research and experiential learning opportunities.

“OHIO’s programs in Ecuador are changing lives, not just for our faculty and students, but also for those who benefit from our research and Healthy Living Initiative programs,” Edmonds said. “It is astounding to see how the work that Dr. Grijalva started for OHIO and PUCE in Ecuador in 2000 has now grown to reach so many areas and with the potential to be globally impactful. Mario has always had one vision for improving the quality of life of humankind, and it is a global one.”

Grijalva is thankful to see how the OHIO research work has evolved, and was pleased so many OHIO faculty, staff and students were able to take part in the recent visit to Ecuador.

“It’s difficult to explain in pictures the magnitude of the project, so I felt an incredible sense of pride in showing the OHIO delegation what our team has been able to accomplish and for them to have a chance to get to know our colleagues at PUCE,” Grijalva said. “The visit of the OHIO-PUCE delegation to the field site was especially powerful, as it provided an opportunity for decision makers to meet face-to-face with community members, completing the opportunity to see the bench to bedside to community connection.”

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Frank echoed the comments from others on the trip, explaining that he was immensely proud to have the opportunity to see the work that OHIO and PUCE faculty and students have done in Ecuador, while also being able to explore new areas of opportunity.

“I was very impressed with all the work that OHIO faculty and students are doing across a spectrum of important projects that have relevance not only for Ecuador, but more globally as well,” Frank said. “In addition, it was obvious to me that much potential remains for the development of additional research, teaching and service projects, and I am very excited about developing future initiatives in collaboration with colleagues at PUCE.”

For more information on the work that OHIO is doing in Ecuador, please visit https://www.ohio.edu/medicine/tdi/.

Photo gallery shows highlights from trip to Ecuador

To see a gallery of photos from the OHIO delegation's visit to Ecuador, visit the Heritage College's blog by clicking here.