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Grant expands OU-COM research on Chagas disease

Training program aims to improve health of Ecuadoran people


Elimination of insect-borne transmission of Chagas disease is one of the main
goals of the program.


(Athens, OH)  A five-year, $750,000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant will significantly expand research efforts by the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-COM) into the transmission, diagnosis and treatment of Chagas disease in Ecuador. 

A potentially life-threatening illness caused by a protozoan parasite spread by insects, blood transfusions and congenially, Chagas disease is the focus of research by OU-COM and its partner, the Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR) at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) in Quito. Chagas affects 13 million people, mainly in the Americas. Approximately 200,000 Ecuadorians are infected with Chagas.  

Mario Grijalva, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and director of the Tropical Disease Institute at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the grant will be used to expand the Ecuadoran research training center. The Global Infectious Diseases Training grant (GID) from the Fogarty International Center at NIH will help researchers obtain biological and clinical information to improve current Chagas disease control efforts and implement a training program in infectious disease research. 

“Multidisciplinary research is going to be necessary to improve Chagas disease control efforts in Ecuador,” said Grijalva. “With this grant and together with PUCE, we can conduct that research. We also mean to substantially increase the country’s research capacity with a training program that will build a corps of infectious disease researchers and well-trained technical personnel.” 

Grijalva called Chagas disease a “neglected disease,” since little action to prevent its transmission and limited research about its treatment have occurred because it mainly affects underserved populations, especially those living in poverty.

“Very little was known about Chagas disease in Ecuador when I started doing research,” said Grijalva, originally from Ecuador and who started researching Chagas disease in 1992. He explained that there was lack of awareness about the disease because researchers did not have the resources and skills necessary to study the disease and advocate for policies and programs that would help eradicate it.

“We hope to significantly improve the lives of Ecuador citizens,” Grijalva said. “The training center will better position scientists to act as effective public health policymakers who can create the recommendations and programs that will stop the spread of the disease and improve treatments.”

The program will be housed in a new 70,000 square foot building that is currently under construction by PUCE (in English, known as the Catholic University of Ecuador) on its new campus near Quito. Slated to open in 2013, the facility will house the labs and offices of 16 principal investigators, associated staff, and research trainees currently located at CIDR, a joint effort between OU-COM and PUCE first started in 1999.

The main hurdle to conducting meaningful research in a developing country is the shortage of adequately trained scientists, Grijalva said.  Therefore, one of the main goals of the Tropical Disease Institute in Ecuador has been to create the institutional infrastructure that would allow highly competent Ecuadorian researchers that have gotten advanced degrees to return to Ecuador.

Jaime Costales, PhD and Mario Grijalva, PhD in a press conference in Manabi, Ecuador.


“I was extremely pleased when Jaime A. Costales, Ph.D., now an assistant professor of the CIDR, accepted a faculty position at PUCE in 2008.”

Since his return to Ecuador, he has established his own research program and collaborates with Grijalva on several projects, including a major role in the preparation of the NIH training grant.  

“Jaime’s presence in Ecuador constitutes a critical advance towards increasing the country’s research capacity. The GID training grant will be a major vehicle to further these efforts,” Grijalva said.

The NIH funding will support four post-doctoral fellows who will join CIDR staff. The grant will also help implement a master’s degree program at PUCE and provide funding for a student from Ecuador to earn a Ph.D. from Ohio University.

The new program means expanded opportunities for OU-COM medical students, faculty and researchers to travel to Ecuador to provide clinical care and conduct research, Grijalva said.

“This will increase the number of people available to work with our students, increase the range of training and outreach we can offer, and increase the number of services that we can provide to help improve the health of the Ecuadoran people,” Grijalva said.

Chagas disease serological screening in rural areas of Ecuador

Each year, Grijalva leads a team of more than 40 researchers, scientists and medical students, including several from OU-COM, to study the disease in Ecuador. The World Health Organization has cited this program as an example to develop a new strategy for a global fight against the disease.

“I am thankful for this very prestigious award,” Grijalva said of the grant. “It recognizes the work we have accomplished in collaboration with Catholic University.”

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Last updated: 01/28/2016