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Home | Tag Archives: Igor Almeida Ph.D.

Tag Archives: Igor Almeida Ph.D.

UTEP Scientists Awarded $6M to Improve Treatment for Chagas Disease

Scientists at The University of Texas at El Paso have received nearly $6 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to improve treatment and develop new diagnostic tools to assess post-therapeutic outcomes for patients with Chagas disease.

Igor Almeida, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, is the principal investigator (PI) of the award — a five-year grant worth $5,713,730 — from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Almeida will work with Katja Michael, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and one of the grant’s co-PIs, and several other investigators from the U.S., Bolivia and Spain. They will conduct a phase II clinical trial in Bolivia with new regimens of the drugs benznidazole and nifurtimox, and new biomarkers for the chemotherapy follow-up.

This is the first clinical trial with UTEP as the leading institution.

The drugs for Chagas disease are toxic and have low efficacy in the treatment of chronic infection. Almeida, Michael and colleagues hope to improve their safety and efficacy by testing new regimens and biomarkers that will provide a more efficient measure of disease state and treatment outcomes.

“This is an important validation of the work being conducted in the College of Science and at The University of Texas at El Paso,” said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., College of Science dean. “This grant was awarded based on the merits of the science, of the work being conducted by Dr. Almeida and Dr. Michael to combat one of the world’s most widespread parasitic infections that has been targeted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public health action.”

Chagas is a potentially life-threatening disease caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to animals and people by insect vectors, popularly known as kissing bugs, and by blood transfusion, organ transplant, congenitally, and by contaminated foods and juices.

The disease has been endemic to Latin America, affecting 6 million to 7 million people, but it is rapidly spreading through the United States, Europe and other non-endemic regions as a result of globalization. Yet, there is no fully effective drug and no clinical vaccine, although there have been several experimental efforts throughout the years.

“We are, of course, very excited and grateful to receive this highly competitive award from NIH,” Almeida said. “Developing new therapeutic approaches for Chagas disease is something we have been working on diligently for some time. This grant will allow us to move forward with those efforts with the hope of ultimately improving the efficacy and safety of treatment that can change the course of Chagas disease treatment worldwide.”

Almeida began work on Chagas disease 28 years ago. In recent years, he began collaborating with Michael to further develop new therapeutic approaches and diagnostic tools, based on synthetic parasite sugars.

“We look forward to furthering our work on this potentially life-saving venture,” Michael said. “This is a testament to the quality of research that is conducted here at UTEP. We are grateful to be able to continue our work and offer students a chance to take part in research that could impact the world.”

UTEP Team Advances in Developing Vaccine for Cutaneous Leishmaniasis

A research team at The University of Texas at El Paso is one step closer to developing an effective human vaccine for cutaneous leishmaniasis, a tropical disease found in Texas and Oklahoma, and affecting some U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

UTEP biological sciences doctoral student Eva Iniguez; her mentors Rosa Maldonado, Ph.D., and Igor Almeida, Ph.D.; and their teams and collaborators in Liverpool (Alvaro Acosta-Serrano, Ph.D.) and Saudi Arabia (Waleed Al-Salem, Ph.D.), recently published their research findings in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, the first journal solely devoted to the world’s most neglected tropical diseases.

Leishmaniasis is caused by the protozoan leishmania parasites, which are transmitted by the bite of infected female phlebotomine sandflies – flies that are three times smaller than a mosquito.  According to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 700,000 to 1 million new cases annually, and they cause 20,000-30,000 deaths each year.

The disease affects some of the poorest people on Earth.

Though it is found in more than 90 countries in the tropics, subtropics and southern Europe, naturally transmitted cases also have been found in the northeastern parts of Texas and in Oklahoma. The disease has impacted 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I think we are in a very good position with this vaccine candidate,” Maldonado said. “I think it is very promising. If things go well, I think we will be able to introduce this vaccine for clinical use in the future.”

During the team’s more than four years of research at UTEP’s Border Biomedical Research Center, they discovered a vaccine formulation that resulted in a 96 percent decrease in the lesions caused by the illness and showed an 86 percent protection rate from the disease in mice. The team counted on the expertise of UTEP chemist Katja Michael, Ph.D., to synthesize molecules used in the study.

“It was really hard to get to this point,” Iniguez said. “There was a lot of standardization, but I am very happy. It is significant protection that we observed and we have all the immunology to understand how the vaccine is working in the system.”

Maldonado and Almeida have each studied Chagas disease for more than 25 years and recently received a patent for the first synthetic Chagas vaccine. That work helped them initiate this research with leishmaniasis, as molecules are different in the diseases but there are similar carbohydrates between the parasites.

The team has submitted a patent application for their cutaneous leishmaniasis vaccine. Currently, there is no vaccine for the disease in humans. Treatment used now is very toxic, painful and lengthy – requiring patients to be hospitalized for almost three weeks for intravenous treatment.

A vaccine does exist to treat cutaneous leishmaniasis in canines. It is approved for use in the United Kingdom.

More on leishmaniasis:

There are three forms of the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes the effects of each:


The skin sores of cutaneous leishmaniasis usually heal on their own, even without treatment. But this can take months or even years, and the sores can leave scars.


Another potential concern applies to some (not all) types of the parasite found in parts of Latin America: certain types might spread from the skin and cause sores in the mucous membranes of the nose (most common location), mouth or throat (mucosal leishmaniasis). Mucosal leishmaniasis might not be noticed until years after the original sores healed. The best way to prevent mucosal leishmaniasis is to ensure adequate treatment of the cutaneous infection.

If not treated, severe (advanced) cases of visceral leishmaniasis typically are fatal.

UTEP Scientists Awarded Patent for Chagas Disease Vaccine

A pair of scientists at The University of Texas at El Paso is one step closer to developing the first ever clinical Chagas disease vaccine.

Researchers Rosa Maldonado, Ph.D., and Igor Almeida, Ph.D., both faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences, recently were granted a patent for “Mucin-Associated Surface Protein As Vaccine Against Chagas Disease.”

“We dream of this [a vaccine for Chagas disease], but we don’t know it is going to happen,” Almeida said. “You dream to get something to help the people and you expect to make at least a small contribution,” Maldonado shared.

The preventive vaccine had been in development since 2008 and most recently was tested at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI) in San Antonio on nonhuman primates in collaboration with John VandeBerg, Ph.D. Results are promising and may lead to clinical trials in the coming years.

A second vaccine, based on synthetic parasite sugars, in collaboration with Katja Michael, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at UTEP, also was tested in nonhuman primates at TBRI and yielded very promising results. Almeida started work on that vaccine 27 years ago and is currently awaiting patent approval.

The vaccine studies were funded by the Kleberg Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

“The big problem with Chagas disease is heart failure,” Maldonado explained. “We have determined the inflammation in the heart and the parasitic load significantly decreased, and this vaccine is protecting the animals from the disease. These are the first synthetic vaccines tested in a non-human primate model ever.”

The UTEP scientists said that 6 million to 8 million people are chronically infected with the potentially life-threatening Chagas disease. Chagas is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to animals and people by insect vectors known as kissing bugs.

Igor Almeida, Ph.D., faculty in UTEP’s Department of Biological Sciences has been researching Chagas for three decades. Photo: JR Hernandez, UTEP Communications

The disease has been endemic in Latin America, but is rapidly spreading through the U.S., Europe and other nonendemic regions as a result of globalization. Yet, there is no clinical vaccine, although there have been several experimental efforts throughout the years.

Both UTEP researchers confirm kissing bugs are in the Paso del Norte region that includes El Paso, have been caught and tested, and many turn out positive with Trypanosoma cruzi. The number of people infected, though, is underreported because symptoms may take decades to turn up and doctors don’t regularly test for this tropical disease.

“It is not like a viral infection; you don’t see it, you feel like you have the flu,” Almeida said. “After several years is when you start having problems. Seventy to 80  percent of those infected don’t feel anything until they start having cardiac problems or gastrointestinal issues or both. That can take over 10-20 years.”

Getting it from a kissing bug isn’t the only way to contract the disease. Once a human is infected, the parasite can be transmitted to others via organ transplants, blood transfusions and from a mother to a fetus. In addition, the parasite can be spread through foods and juices tainted by the contaminated bug feces.

To prevent parasite transmission by the kissing bug, the scientists say it’s important to be aware of the presence of the bugs in the house and yard.

“If you see kissing bugs, do not touch them. You can collect them using gloves and a jar. To prevent them from coming into your home, plug

Chagas is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted to animals and people by insect vectors known as kissing bugs. The bugs, which are found in our area, are shown in these lab dishes. Photo: JR Hernandez, UTEP Communications

any cracks in your home, keep screens on your windows and doors and make sure there are no tears,” the pair advised.

If you catch a kissing bug,  call 915-747-6891 or 915-747-6086 or email or so their team can pick up the specimen and test it.

Efforts are under way now to increase community awareness locally and seek funding for future studies.

“We feel good but would feel better if these vaccines went on to clinical trials,” Almeida said.

“The anxiety to go to the next step is unbearable,” Maldonado added. “Every step is a very hard fight.”

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