Congratulations, Dr. Almeida
Friday, March 10, 2023
UTEP Professor Elected to Brazilian Academy of Sciences
By Julia Hettiger
UTEP Marketing and Communications
Igor Almeida, D.Sc., UTEP professor of biological sciences, has been elected to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, a prestigious honor typically reserved for scientists living and working in Brazil.
Almeida was selected because of his contributions to advancing the sciences in Brazil, including his own research into Chagas disease and his support of budding Brazilian scientists.
“We are excited that Dr. Almeida has been elected to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, an uncommon feat for someone who lives and works in another country,” Robert Kirken, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Science said. “This honor highlights the incredible research he has accomplished on fighting parasitic infections in his time at UTEP.”
New members of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences are first recommended by the Academy’s selection committee. Nominees must then complete a comprehensive dossier, detailing their scientific contributions before being elected by the General Assembly, which is the governing body of the academy.
A native of Brazil, Almeida began working at UTEP in 2004. Despite now living thousands of miles away, his support of budding Brazilian scientists has never wavered, something the committee recognized in his nomination.
“Even having left Brazil many years ago, I continue helping the Brazilian sciences, including training Ph.D. students and graduates,” Almeida said. “Since 2004, I have received almost 30 Ph.D. students from Brazil. They spend six months to a year here to finish their projects. The expertise I have here is not very common in Brazil, so people ask me if I can receive their students. Then they go back to defend their Ph.D. with the data collected here.”
For over 34 years, nearly two decades of which has been at UTEP, Almeida has studied Chagas disease, a potentially deadly disease caused by a parasite spread by kissing bugs. Kissing bugs, also known as vampire or assassin bugs, are vector insects that feed on human blood and frequently spread parasites. The bug feeds through biting, but it spreads the parasite through its feces, which may be transmitted to the bite wound unknowingly.
Though Chagas disease is widely known to be endemic in Latin and South America, kissing bugs are present in both the southwest and southeast United States, including the borderland region. While high numbers of individuals who live in areas where kissing bugs are present may have the disease, only 20% to 30% of them experience serious symptoms, which can include enlargement of organs including the heart that may lead to death. Because of this, many who are infected don’t receive a diagnosis, increasing their chances of spreading it to other people and delaying life-saving treatment.
“We have seen a trend of mothers unknowingly passing it to their babies,” Almeida said. “And my wife, Professor Rosa Maldonado, who also researches Chagas disease and these bugs at UTEP, has seen this infection in 60% of kissing bugs and approximately 40% of stray cats and dogs carrying it here in El Paso and Las Cruces. Dogs can also experience heart problems.”
In many studies, Chagas disease has been likened to the HIV/AIDS pandemic due to how it disproportionately impacts individuals living in poverty and the long-term treatment that is required. Almeida’s work aims to create new tools for diagnosis and treatment prognosis and drugs and vaccines to treat and prevent Chagas disease. Four new chemotherapeutic regimens and novel biomarkers of cure are currently undergoing a phase two National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trial, the first of its kind at UTEP. Almeida is the program director and principal investigator of that multicenter trial, which involves several labs in the U.S., Bolivia and Spain.
His research, analyzing kissing bugs and the parasite native to this region, is important in ensuring available treatment and prevention against this area’s specific strain.
“People may use kits developed in South America, and they don’t work here because they are very different strains, so we are developing these tools,” Almeida said.
Almeida is grateful to have had the support of UTEP, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations that have granted him funding for the equipment necessary to conduct this work. Being elected to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences illustrates his dedication to supporting the sciences both in Brazil and UTEP and to advancing treatment for Chagas disease.
“I feel very humbled and glad to be a part of the Academy,” Almeida said. “It is an honor that is only possible because of the work and dedication of my many students, postdocs and collaborators throughout all these years.”