Cristina Poveda Cuevas remembers the first time she saw the parasite that would become her life’s work.
She was peering at Trypanosoma cruzi, revealed in the blood of a patient in her native Colombia who was infected with Chagas disease. The neglected tropical disease is found throughout the poorest neighborhoods in Latin America as well as in underserved areas of North America.
She knows it sounds strange, but she saw beauty there.
“I love my parasite. I think it’s pretty and intelligent and I try to understand how it works in order to kill it,” she said. “But I have this feeling: I really love the work.”
The work is challenging in large part because patients are often treated only for symptoms such as damage to their hearts rather than the cause of their illness as well, which could date to infection 30 years before. And the parasite itself is protean, showing itself to be genetically different in Colombia versus Argentina, for example, where it seems almost like a different species.
Now a postdoc at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Poveda Cuevas is marshalling her background in microbiology and immunology to develop an mRNA vaccine that could prevent and treat Chagas. RNA vaccines have two advantages: The work better on multiple subtypes of Chagas than DNA vaccines and they are less expensive than protein-based vaccines.
Her career has taken her from Colombia to Madrid to Houston, with one constant since she first saw signs of Chagas infection working with patients while pursuing her master’s degree.
“I love my parasite. I think it’s pretty and intelligent and I try to understand how it works in order to kill it.”
“I had this feeling I was doing something good for another person,” Poveda Cuevas recalled. “I actually feel really lucky to work with the same parasite now.”
— Elizabeth Cooney