College student Annie McClure is helping to uncover exactly how the deadly Chagas disease is spread through blood-sucking insects known as “Kissing bugs” that can harbor six different strains of the disease-causing parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi. McClure, a biological sciences and Latin American studies double major at Loyola University New Orleans, is involved in research led by Chagas expert and Loyola biology professor Patricia Dorn, Ph.D.
That research, parts of which McClure and Dorn presented at the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease conference this month, focuses on which strains of the disease-causing parasite are associated with different hosts, different regions of Latin America and even different manifestations of Chagas disease—from the dangerous heart conditions to digestive illnesses it can cause.
For McClure, the research at Loyola—one of 28 Jesuit, Catholic higher education institutions in the U.S.—is a way to serve the world. “I have realized that this research, which primarily affects poor, Latin American people, is a form of service that mirrors the Jesuit ideal of ‘special concern for the poor and oppressed,’” she said.
Currently, not much is known about which strains of the Chagas disease-causing parasite are present in Central America. So McClure, with the help of Dorn, has been focusing on one species of “Kissing bug,” Triatoma dimidiata, the most important species in Central America. She presented her research on which strains of the parasite are found in different specimens of the “Kissing bugs.” In this way, McClure and researchers at Loyola can better understand differences in how the disease is manifest in different localities and how best to stop the spread of this deadly disease.
Her involvement in the ground-breaking Chagas disease research during her undergraduate years has not only ignited a passion within her, it has taken her on quite the adventure. The Chagas disease research at Loyola has taken McClure down the bayou, adorned in all black, headlamp on her head and forceps in hand, to go "Kissing bug" collecting on a Friday night in South Louisiana. It has brought her up a 6,780-foot mountain peak overlooking Fort Collins, Colo. It has taught her the importance of collaboration in research and put her in a room full of people who had different backgrounds, first languages, ages and expertise, but shared the common goal of better understanding Chagas disease. It has also taught McClure the importance of continuing to ask the questions “why?” and “how?”
“My research involvement thus far has been one more Loyola experience that has ingrained in me Jesuit values, and instilled in me the desire to combine my passions and skills towards a pursuit of excellence and service to the world. In this case, one 'Kissing bug' at a time,” McClure said.