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Biologist confirms new species of bugs spreading deadly tropical disease

Loyola press release - December 6, 2013

A Loyola University New Orleans researcher has offered further scientific proof of a new species at least partly responsible for spreading a deadly tropical illness—Chagas disease. Biology professor and Chagas disease expert Patricia Dorn, Ph.D., published those findings in the scientific journal Acta Tropica this month. Former Loyola student Bethany Richards, now a medical school student at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, was a co-author on the study.

The “kissing bugs” as they are commonly known, often feed on victims’ faces at night, spreading Chagas disease. The disease infects from 7 to 8 million people in Latin America and also people in the U.S., according to Dorn’s previous research. In 30 to 40 percent of victims, Chagas causes life-threatening heart disease.

Though Dorn and the other researchers on the study did not discover the new bug species, they are the first to offer the scientific evidence that the bugs sharing the same name are actually different. Dorn’s team did this by meticulously studying the bugs’ genes and breeding.

“Although different populations of the main species of kissing bugs that transmit Chagas disease in Central America look similar, we and others have found by studying the genetics that some populations may, in fact, be quite different, perhaps even a different species,” Dorn said. “In the paper we just published, we show for the first time that these genetically different populations cannot interbreed with the others; so we have demonstrated that they are, in fact, a new species.”