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Researchers travel to the Guatemalan jungle in search of kissing bugs

Loyola press release - September 21, 2009

Loyola University New Orleans biology professor Patricia Dorn, Ph.D., and three of her researchers, recently traveled to Guatemala to conduct tropical field studies on kissing bugs and the illness they create in humans, Chagas disease.

Chagas disease is the most serious parasitic disease in Latin America and a leading cause of heart disease. No longer just a tropical disease, it is beginning to appear in non-endemic countries such as the United States. Dorn and coworkers described the first human transmission by the kissing bugs in Louisiana in 2006.

“The main goal was to train students in field work in tropical biology,” said Dorn. “In addition, I wanted them to learn about the biology of the kissing bugs, where they live, what they feed on…and to see for themselves the people who are directly affected by this devastating disease.”

Dorn and public health research scholars Nick de la Rua, Jonathan Kurtz and Gabriela Estrada were joined by researchers last June from the University of Vermont, and Carlota Monroy, Ph.D., from the University of San Carlos, in Guatemala City. As part of their studies, the group travelled around the Peten region, located in northern Guatemala, and hunted for kissing bugs in caves and chultunes, ancient Mayan granaries.

The researchers encountered a number of hair-raising experiences along their journey. Among them were visits to bat-infested caves and very remote villages.

“We covered our bodies from head to toe and wore masks to prevent the spores from the bat feces from entering our lungs,” said Estrada. “Then we looked inside various caves for the bugs and collected them. We were lucky to be able to explore the Mayan cave Naj Tunich, which is closed to the general public. The last people allowed into the cave were a team from the Discovery Channel. It was also amazing to see ancient Mayan glyphs and pottery within Naj Tunich.”

During their visit to a Mayan village, they were able to observe the deplorable living conditions of the people who are typically affected by Chagas disease.

“The only water source was a dirty creek running through the village with a pig wallowing in it, and there were no latrines. They are living in really impoverished and isolated conditions,” said Dorn. “The students could see children with orange on the tips of their hair from malnutrition and general lack of even basic resources.”

“The Guatemalan people were amazingly different from us, however, I learned how tough and how kind they are,” said de la Rua. “People throughout our experience were always willing to help, feed and shelter us. It was very humbling to have people with so little to offer, want to give us so much.”

Following their field research, the scholars presented work at a symposium at the University of San Carlos. There, they collaborated with professors and students about Chagas research and received feedback on their presentations. Students also discussed the difficulties and challenges of the research with other students and professors.

“We had a wonderful day-long symposium as a culmination of the visit,” said Dorn. “Since we are collaborating on a larger project, it was helpful to see the big picture with all the pieces presented together.”

This research trip was made available to Loyola students through the Public Health Research Scholar’s program, developed by Dorn and funded through a grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents, which allows students to work on independent research projects over several years.

“This experience has really shaped my education at Loyola, in becoming something truly special and unique as an undergraduate,” said de la Rua.

The Public Health Research Scholar’s program is looking for its next scholars to assist in tropical research. The scholars take part in fieldwork trips, present research at symposiums, have one-on-one lab training and write grant proposals and a thesis. The scholars also receive stipends and scholarships for their work. The program welcomes any interested students who would like to learn more about the research process.

For more information about the program, contact Dorn at dorn@loyno.edu or (504) 865-3672.

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