Simon Fraser University

Tropical disease on doorstep

Jul 11, 2002 , vol. 24, no. 6

By Carol Thorbes
SFU assistant professor Carl Lowenberger holds a balsa wood model of the Yellow Fever mosquito. At one time the insect vector was endemic to Egypt, but has been almost eradicated from the area.

Many people think Malaria, West Nile fever, Chagas Disease and other potentially debilitating and deadly tropical diseases are confined to far off places.

Carl Lowenberger knows they've been on our doorstep for years. The graduate of Simon Fraser University's master's in pest management program is one of SFU's newest Canada Research Chair appointees.

The internationally recognized expert on parasites and insect immunity researches the transmission of insect-borne tropical diseases in endemic regions and their potential spread to temperate regions globally.

“Global warming, the increased resistance of insect vectors (disease carrying insects) to pesticides, and of parasites to current therapies are making tropical diseases more prevalent worldwide,” says Lowenberger. “Canadians travelling and working abroad, immigrants coming to Canada from countries where tropical diseases are prevalent and the migration of animals that are reservoirs of disease-causing organisms makes disease transmission possible everywhere.”

Statistics back up Lowenberger's claim. There are about 400 reported cases of malaria in Canada annually. Chagas Disease now occurs in the U. S. The deadly disease attacks the heart, colon or esophagus. The West Nile virus has reportedly infected humans and wildlife in the eastern U.S.

Originally from London, Ontario, Lowenberger came to SFU from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he helped pioneer research on the innate immune response of disease carrying insects.

He discovered that tropical disease-carrying insects are equipped with an arsenal of antimicrobial peptides. These chemical compounds are used to kill disease-causing bacteria and fungi that invade the insects.

The question is, why do insects often allow parasites to develop within themselves when their immune systems could kill the invaders?
Lowenberger's Canada Research Chair in biology of parasites and disease vectors at SFU will enable him to explore answers to this question.

“Identifying and characterizing components of the insect immune system may help scientists create novel drugs and antibiotics to treat tropical diseases,” explains Lowenberger.

An incurable globetrotter, he has seen firsthand the devastating health and economic effects of tropical diseases in South America and Egypt.