Scientists fighting STD  with research, education

By Heather Feldman

In laboratories nestled in the Department of Microbiology, John Alderete, Ph.D., is moving closer to developing a vaccine for the world's most prevalent non-viral sexually transmitted disease (STD)Trichomonas vaginalis

Trichomonas is a protozoan parasite that has been linked to HIV and a host of neonatal complications. An estimated 5 million people will be infected this year in the United States.

Dr. Alderete and his team of researchers are studying how the parasite attaches to cells to cause the infection. They also are studying how it is able to survive in the adverse environment of the female urogenital tract.

"We understand a little better the mechanisms of adherence and how the parasite can live inside the body," said Dr. Alderete, professor of microbiology. "We know what nutrients it needs and how it evades the immune system. You really need this fundamental knowledge base to learn how the organism survives before you can begin to develop strategies to interfere with the infection."

Women suffering from trichomonosis, the vaginitis caused by the infection, may experience a variety of symptoms ranging from abdominal pain to severe irritation and discharge in the vaginal area. During pregnancy, infection may result in a number of neonatal problems, including pre-term rupture of the membrane, pre-term delivery and low-birth-weight infants. A percentage of infants born to infected mothers have developed vaginal infections themselves, and cases are on record of infants contracting pneumonia from infection of the respiratory tract.

Women also run a greater risk of contracting HIV if infected with Trichomonas and are more susceptible to cervical cancer and other STDs. 

Men also are susceptible to the disease, but more than one half of men who are infected will naturally expel the parasite within 14 days. Dr. Alderete and his research team are looking at the reasons why men seem to get rid of the disease quickly, while women suffer until they are diagnosed and treated.

Identifying the disease is not always easy. Diagnosis usually involves a microscopic observation of the parasite that can be missed by the untrained eye. Roughly one half of women with trichomonosis are misdiagnosed.

In addition to researching the nation's most prevalent non-viral sexually transmitted disease (STD), John Alderete, Ph.D., professor of microbiology, also is leading an effort to educate the community about Trichomonas vaginalis and other STDs.

"There is no tie to a specific symptom that physicians can point to and say 'that is trich'," said Dr. Alderete. "Most of the symptoms women suffer from are symptoms you might find with other types of illnesses and infections."

The drug Flagyl is used currently as a treatment for trichomonosis but has side effects including nausea and vomiting. A rising number of patients have become resistant to the drug, and it is the only drug currently available to treat the disease in the United States. The increase in drug resistance, especially on college campuses, amplifies the need for a vaccine.

Trichomonosis is not a widely known or publicized STD, which is part of the problem. When it comes to STDs, such as the one caused by Trichomonas vaginalis, information and attention are key to preventing the disease from spreading. In an effort to stop the progression of the disease, Dr. Alderete is working both in the laboratory as a scientist and in the community as an activist, providing outreach programs to young adults who may not have the information they need about STDs.

Dr. Alderete travels to local middle and high schools, armed with pamphlets, videos and posters, to talk with students about the Trichomonas parasite and its disease. Students see firsthand what the parasite looks like under the microscope and about the links between cigarette smoking and infection. He also invites students into the laboratory for presentations on his research and careers in science.

"It turns out to be quite educational for the students," said Dr. Alderete. "Watching the organism under the microscope is like seeing firsthand what is going on inside the body." .

Trichomonas vaginalis is a protozoan parasite that has been linked to HIV and a host of neonatal complications. Here is the parasite as viewed under a microscope.

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